Harley Davidson Shovelhead Years To Avoid: Reliability

Ah, the Shovelhead – one of Harley-Davidson’s most iconic and beloved engines. This V-twin powerhouse ruled the roads from 1966 to 1984, earning a cult following of bikers who appreciated its raw power and distinctive sound.

However, as with any classic motorcycle engine, there are certain years that you’ll want to steer clear of if you’re considering adding this beauty to your collection or if you’re just starting out on your Shovelhead journey.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a die-hard Shovelhead fan myself, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into when hunting for that perfect ride. Throughout its production run, the Shovelhead went through several design changes and improvements – some worked well, while others left something to be desired.


That’s why we’ve put together this guide outlining the years to avoid when shopping for a Shovelhead. Trust me; it’ll save you some headaches down the road. So let’s dive in and separate the gems from the duds in our quest for that ultimate iron horse experience.

Common Issues In 1983 Model

When it comes to 1983 Shovelhead models, faulty starters and oiling problems are two of the most common issues you’ll run into.

If you’re gonna buy one of these babies, make sure the starter and oiling systems are in top condition; otherwise you’ll be facing some expensive repairs.

Faulty Starter

Picture this: you’re out on the open road, cruising along on your classic 1983 Harley Shovelhead, when suddenly it’s time to take a break.

You pull over and shut off the engine, only to find that when it’s time to fire her back up, the starter just won’t engage. This is a common issue faced by Shovelhead riders and one of the reasons why some consider certain years as ‘shovelhead years to avoid.’

Starter problems in these beauties can be frustrating, especially when you hear that dreaded ‘click’ sound from the starter solenoid and nothing else.

As an expert in Shovelhead motorcycles, I would advise potential buyers to research the history of any ’83 model they’re considering purchasing and ensure that if a faulty starter was present in its past, it has been properly addressed and resolved. After all, we want our rides to be as hassle-free as possible so we can just focus on enjoying the freedom of the road.

Oiling Problems

Now, let’s talk about another common issue that has led some riders to label certain models as ‘shovelhead years to avoid’ – oiling problems.

As a Shovelhead expert, I can tell you that these classic bikes can sometimes face challenges with their oiling systems, such as spewing oil from the vent pipe or struggling to take more than half throttle even after an oil change.

One possible cause of these oiling problems could be a stuck check ball or bypassing the whole system.

If you’re considering adding an ’83 Shovelhead to your collection, it’s crucial to investigate its history and ensure any previous oiling issues have been properly addressed.

After all, we want our bikes running smoothly and efficiently so we can focus on what matters most: the exhilarating ride down the open road.

Common Issues In 1978 Model

Oil spraying out is a common issue with the 1978 model shovelheads, so it’s important to check the oil lines and clamps for any signs of wear.

And make sure to keep an eye on the oil refilling process – if it’s taking too long to fill, that could be a sign of a bigger problem.

Additionally, you’ll want to keep an eye on the points and firing of the engine, as this can easily cause a clutch issue.

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Oil Spraying Out

Imagine cruising down the highway on your 1978 Shovelhead, wind in your face, when suddenly you notice oil spraying out of the vent line!

This frustrating issue is all too common for riders of this particular model, and it’s not just a minor inconvenience – oil leaks can lead to engine overheating and even damage.

As a seasoned Shovelhead expert, I’ve seen this problem occur time and time again, but fortunately there are ways to address it.

Ensuring that your engine seals are in good condition and maintaining proper oil levels can help prevent these pesky leaks from ruining your ride.

Oil Refilling

Now, let’s talk about another oil-related issue that plagues the ’78 Shovelhead: oil refilling.

As a Shovelhead aficionado, I’ve seen riders struggle with this seemingly simple task.

They’ll try to add oil through the top of the forks after removing the fork hex caps, but find themselves unable to do so.

This can be particularly frustrating when you’re trying to maintain proper oil levels and prevent those pesky leaks we just discussed.

The key here is knowing your shovelhead inside and out – sometimes, it may take a bit of creativity or extra effort to get that crucial oil refill done.

Always remember that keeping your engine topped up and running smoothly is well worth the time spent troubleshooting these challenges.

Common Issues In 1967 Model

When dealing with clutch disengagement, the most common issue is the clutch cable not being adjusted properly.

Shifting problems can usually be attributed to worn out shift forks or the wrong gear ratios being used.

Clutch Disengagement

Ah, the clutch disengagement issue – a classic problem that has plagued some Shovelhead riders for years.

It’s no secret that clutch disengagement can be a real headache in certain models, making them years to avoid for those who want hassle-free riding.

As an avid Shovelhead enthusiast myself, I can attest to the frustration of having your ride interrupted by this pesky issue.

The culprit lies in the bike’s hydraulic system, which, when overheated or faulty, causes the clutch to remain engaged even when you don’t want it to be.

This not only impacts your ride quality but also leads to potential damage to your beloved Shovelhead over time.

So if you’re in the market for a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle, make sure to do your research and steer clear of those notorious years with persistent clutch disengagement issues.

Shifting Problem

Now, let’s talk about that shifting problem that has also been a thorn in the side of many Harley Shovelhead owners.

As a seasoned Shovelhead aficionado, I can tell you firsthand how infuriating it is to experience gear-shifting issues while out on the open road.

The primary cause of this annoyance can be traced back to a faulty foot shift mechanism, which often results in snapped pins and unreliable gear changes.

When you’re cruising on your vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the last thing you want is a shifting problem to spoil your ride or worse – damage your prized Shovelhead.

So, as with any classic bike purchase, make sure you do your due diligence and thoroughly inspect the foot shift mechanism before committing to owning one of these otherwise incredible machines.

Which Models To Steer Clear Of

If you’re looking at shovelhead years to avoid, steer clear of the 1973-1984 models.

They’ve got more problems than the 1986-1991 models.


Ah, the shovelhead years – a time when bikes looked cool, but you had to know which models to steer clear of.

Let me tell ya, between 1973 and 1984, there were some serious pitfalls for those who didn’t do their homework.

You see, during this era, there were significant changes in engine design that affected the reliability and performance of certain models.

Some folks might’ve gotten lucky with their picks, but others found themselves cursing at the side of the road after yet another breakdown.

So if you’re looking to pick up a classic shovelhead from this period, make sure you know what you’re getting into – it could save you a world of headaches down the line.


Now, let’s fast-forward a bit to the years between 1986 and 1991.

You’d think that by then, all those pesky shovelhead engine issues would’ve been ironed out, right?

Well, not quite.

They put a band-aid on some problems but didn’t eliminate ’em completely.

Reliability was still hit or miss, depending on the model you went for.

Sure, there were some solid options to choose from during this period, but you had to be careful not to step on any landmines.

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Do your research and ask around before you throw down your hard-earned cash on a sweet-looking ride – it’s better to play it safe than risk ending up with another headache-inducing hunk of junk.

Factors To Consider When Purchasing

When it comes to shovelhead motorcycles, the mechanical condition should be your top priority. Make sure to check for any signs of wear and tear, and have a professional give it the once-over before you commit.

Cost is another important factor, with older models costing less than newer ones.

Finally, mileage should be taken into account, since higher mileage can lead to more expensive repairs.

### Mechanical Condition

You know what they say, folks: ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover,’ and the same goes for those classic shovelhead motorcycles.

When you’re on the hunt for that perfect ride, don’t be fooled by shiny chrome alone; it’s crucial to take a good hard look at the bike’s mechanical condition.

Trust me, some of those old beauties have years that are best left in the dust – I’m talking about the notorious shovelhead years to avoid like 1979 with their problematic oil pumps and cam gears.

So, before you plunk down your hard-earned cash on that vintage beast, make sure to give it a thorough inspection or get an expert opinion.

Remember, even if she looks pretty on the outside, it’s what’s under the hood that’ll make or break your love affair with that classic shovelhead.


Now, let’s talk about another crucial factor when it comes to purchasing that dream Harley Davidson Shovelhead: cost.

You’ve gotta remember that these old-school beauties ain’t always cheap, and you don’t wanna end up with an empty wallet and a bike that’s gonna give you headaches years down the line.

It’s important to consider not just the initial price tag but also any potential repairs or upgrades that might be needed to keep her running smooth.

And hey, if you’re lucky enough to find a real diamond in the rough for a steal, be prepared to invest some dough into making her shine again.

After all, part of the joy of owning a classic shovelhead is bringing her back to life and hitting the open road with pride.


Alright, now that we’ve tackled the money side of things, let’s shift gears and talk about something equally important: mileage.

You know as well as I do that with these classic beauties, too much mileage can be a red flag. And there are certain shovelhead years to avoid if you’re looking for longevity.

But hey, don’t let that scare ya! Mileage ain’t everything—sometimes it’s just a matter of the bike being well-loved and cared for. Just remember to keep an eye on the odometer and don’t shy away from asking questions about its history.

It’s all part of doing your homework and ensuring you end up with a trusty steed ready to tackle the open road together with you.

Tips For Selecting The Best Model

When it comes to selecting the best model of a shovelhead, year production is key.

Generally, earlier models from the 1960s to the mid 70s have the best performance specs, but require more maintenance.

Later models from the late 70s to 1984 offer better reliability, but you may sacrifice some performance.

Year Production

Imagine you’re strollin’ down the aisles of a vintage motorcycle shop, and there it is – the Shovelhead beauty that’s been callin’ your name.

But hold on there, partner! Before you grab those handlebars and ride off into the sunset, you’ve gotta know which Shovelhead years to avoid in terms of year production.

As a seasoned Shovelhead expert, I can tell ya that some models are more reliable than others.

Typically, you’ll wanna steer clear of the ’68-’69 models due to oil leaks and faulty alternator issues.

And don’t even get me started on those pesky ’74-’77 models with their troublesome aluminum cylinders and weak valve guides.

Trust me, with a little research into year production, you’ll be able to find the right model for your hog-lovin’ heart without any unnecessary mechanical headaches down the road.

Performance Specs

Now that we’ve gone over the Shovelhead years to avoid, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of performance specs, partner.

You can’t just judge a bike by its year alone; you gotta dig deeper and understand what makes that engine purr.

When it comes to Shovelhead engines, you want one with solid horsepower and torque numbers – after all, who doesn’t wanna feel the wind in their hair while rippin’ down the highway?

Keep an eye out for models with upgraded camshafts, ignition systems, and exhaust systems – these improvements will give your hog an extra kick in the pants!

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And don’t forget about those carburetors; a well-tuned carb can make all the difference in how your Shovelhead runs.

So take some time to research performance specs and find a model that’ll have you grinnin’ from ear-to-ear every time you twist that throttle.

Maintenance Requirements

Now, partner, don’t go thinkin’ you can just hop on a Shovelhead and ride into the sunset without a care in the world. No siree! These ol’ beauties may have some kick to ’em, but they also come with their fair share of maintenance requirements.

See, over the years, plenty of improvements have been made to various parts and systems in these engines; however, that doesn’t mean you won’t need to get your hands dirty from time to time. Keepin’ your Shovelhead well-maintained is key to enjoyin’ those long rides and keepin’ her purrin’ like a kitten.

So when you’re out there lookin’ for that perfect model, be sure to take into account what kind of upkeep she’ll need and whether you’re willin’ and able to put in that elbow grease – it’s all part of the love affair with these classic hogs!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Shovelhead Years to Avoid?

The Shovelhead Harley Davidson engine was produced from 1966 to 1985. The years to avoid are the late 70s and early 80s due to quality control issues and the use of subpar materials. These years were marked by various problems such as starter and reliability issues, overheating, leaks, and oil leaks.

What is a Shovelhead?

A Shovelhead is a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine that was introduced in 1966. It was Harley Davidson’s first aluminum-alloy engine and replaced the Panhead engine. The engine was given its name due to the shape of the rocker covers resembling a coal shovel.

What is the History of the Shovelhead Engine?

The Shovelhead engine was developed by Harley Davidson’s R&D team in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was produced from 1966 to 1985, and it was undeniably one of the most iconic American machine engines in history. The engine’s foundry was located in Milwaukee, and it was Harley Davidson’s first engine to feature an aluminum-alloy cylinder head and rocker covers.

What are Common Problems Associated with the Shovelhead Engine?

The Shovelhead engine is prone to a variety of mechanical problems such as starter and reliability issues, overheating, leaks, and oil leaks. The engine was bought back by Harley Davidson from customers due to these problems.

What is the Back End of a Shovel?

The back end of a Shovel refers to the part of the engine that is behind the fork tubes. It is where the drive train is located, including the engine and transmission.

What was Unique about the Shovelhead Engine?

The Shovelhead engine was unique in that it was the first Harley Davidson engine to feature a thicker base that was mounted directly onto the frame. It was also the first engine to feature a 12-volt electrical system and steel struts that supported the rocker covers.

What is the AMF Era of Harley Davidson?

The AMF era of Harley Davidson refers to the time when Harley Davidson was owned by the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) from 1969 to 1981. The era was marked by various quality control issues, and the Shovelhead engines produced during this time are known to be of lower quality than those produced before or after this period.

What Harley Davidson Models Feature the Shovelhead Engine?

The Shovelhead engine was used in various Harley Davidson models such as the FL, FLH, Super Glide, Low Rider, and Wide Glide. It was a popular choice among Harley Davidson enthusiasts who preferred the traditional American motorbike style.

What is the Power Pac for a Shovelhead Engine?

The Power Pac for a Shovelhead engine refers to the new aluminum-alloy “Power Pac” engine that was introduced in 1980 by Harley Davidson. The engine was designed to address some of the reliability and quality control issues that were associated with the previous versions of the Shovelhead engine.

How reliable are Shovelheads?

Shovelheads are known to have reliability issues, particularly in the years from 1978 to 1984. However, regular maintenance and repairs can go a long way in improving the durability and longevity of the engine.

What are some improvements made to the Shovelheads throughout the years?

Harley-Davidson made several improvements to the Shovelhead engine over the years, including upgrading to a rubber-mounted chassis, improving rocker-arm and breather technology, and introducing new aluminum-alloy components.

What is the history of the Shovelhead engine?

The Shovelhead was introduced as a replacement for the Panhead engine in 1966. It was produced until 1985, when it was replaced by the Evolution engine.

How did the Shovelhead get its name?

The Shovelhead gets its name from its distinct “shovel” shaped rocker cover.

What is the difference between a Shovelhead and a Panhead?

The Shovelhead engine replaced the Panhead engine and featured several improvements, including a redesigned cylinder head, rocker arm, and breather technology. The Shovelhead also had an enclosed final chain drive and a new aluminum-alloy “power pac” that was engineered into the casting.


In conclusion, it’s no coincidence that certain Shovelhead models, specifically the 1983, 1978, and 1967 versions, have more issues than others.

As a fellow enthusiast, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of doing thorough research and considering all factors when purchasing a Shovelhead motorcycle.

By following the tips provided and steering clear of problematic models, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect Shovelhead for your collection or riding pleasure.

Enjoy the ride!


By Jacob - The Rider

Hi, my name is Jacob. I'm the founder of Backyard Rider Mag - a blog about motorcycles. I've studied engineering in college but decided to make blogging my career because it really aligned with what I wanted to do creatively - talk about bikes! I've been riding for 16 years now- everything from sportbikes to cruisers, dirtbikes or even dual sports. And after all these years on the road, there are still new bikes that excite me just as much as when I first started riding.

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