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A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NICKNAME?: The “Shovelhead,” third of the Big Three.

All of the great Harley-Davidson Big Twin motors, those that have become historically significant, are those that have earned revered nicknames based on the apppearance of their top ends that have stood the test of time. These are the “Knucklehead,” the “Panhead” and the “Shovelhead.” These are known as the Big Three.

In the case of the Knucklehead and the Panhead, the nicknames were based on the appearance of their rocker covers, and in the case of the Shovelhead, its rocker boxes. Don’t ask me why this is. I am merely your humble reporter who has made an obvious observation. The Biker World turns as it is wont to do, As The Biker World Turns. Let’s not turn this serious discussion into a soap opera, okay? Nevertheless, this theory is true. Let’s take this one at a time.


The Knucklehead was introduced in 1936 as the 61E, and it ushered in the era of the overhead valve motor for The Firm. This was the beginning of the Royal Family of Harley Big Twins, where the early adoption of a unique nickname destined this motor for greatness and everlasting historical significance among bikers. Bikers soon began calling the motor a “Knucklehead” based on the appearnce of its rocker covers.

If one holds out his right hand, palm facing out, and then makes a fist, then one can see the resemblance between the four knuckles of the fist and the rocker covers of the Knucklehead engine. The rear cylinder’s rocker cover looks like the knuckles of the forefinger and middle finger, and the front cylinder’s rocker covers look like the knuckles of the ring finger and pinky. Nobody calls the motor the “61E” anymore. It will forever be the legend known as the “Knucklehead.” The Knucklehead has been known by its famous nickname of Knucklehead, for 77 years. This was the first of the Big Three


The Panhead succeeded the Knucklehead in 1948. No doubt, some jocularly thinking biker in the late ’40s said to his brother riders, “Hey, look at that! They look like baking pans. Hey, who wants ta go fer a ride on our new Panheads? If not, how ’bout baking sum cakes?” Little did the earliest adopter (Panhead Biker Number One) of this venerable nickname for his motor, realize that his verbal invention would eventually become universally accepted by the biker subculture.

This motor will forever be known as the “Panhead,” and this nickname is so popular, that it has been used vernacularly to indicate an entire motorcycle, as in, “Hey, let’s ride our Panheads!” The Panhead mill would at one point in the 1960s, become the most popular motor to build a chopper around. The Panhead has been known by its famous nickname of Panhead, for 65 years. This is the second of the Big Three. By the way, I never hear any hacked-up Yamaha riders proclaim, “Hey, let’s get it on with our XS650s!”


The Shovelhead motor took the Panhead’s place in 1966. No doubt, the earliest adopter of this motor’s famous nickname, was a coal miner. I can picture him (Shovelead Biker Number One) saying to his co-workers, “Hey ya bright morons, who wants ta guess what this (pointing to his Shovelhead’s rocker boxes) looks like, huh? Any of ya goons got any ideas?” Stymied by their lightbulb-bright first adopter, they said, “Uh, nope. What do you reckon it looks like, genius?” Shovelhead Biker Number One crowed proudly, “Why you dumb mugs, it looks like the back of our coal shovels!” known worldwide by this famous moniker of “Shovelhead,” this motor has been a legend for 47 years. This is the third and final member of the Big Three.

The difference between the basis for the nicknames of the Knucklehead and Panhead versus the Shovelhead, is that in the first two instances, they were based on the rocker covers. These were merely covers that hid the innards of the working parts that comprised the valve train assembly. In the Shovelhead’s case, the nickname is based on the looks of the rocker boxes, since the rocker boxes became an integral component of the valve train, since the rockers pivoted on shafts attached to the rocker boxes.


The V2, or the “Evolution” engine as its known in The Firm’s Litigation Department, showed some promise as some early nickname adopters started calling this the “blockhead.” The problem is, no one calls this motor the blockhead anymore. Instead, people have habitually been referring to this anomaly as the “Evo.” This is simply a shortened version of what the Litigation Department of The Firm, has been calling this mill. In fact by this time, “Evo” might’ve been copyrighted by The Firm.

Any nickname worth its 60 weight in the biker subculture, must have originated in and flourished in the culture, without any legalese input by The Firm. By the standards for the criterion established by the biker subculture for greatness of motors—that the respective nickname must be based on the appearance of a given motor’s rocker covers or boxes–the Evo fails to meet this parameter.

In the Big Twin World, there are only three truly great engines, that’ve been immortalized by nicknames that’ve passed the test of common and mass usage, over extended periods of time. These are the “Knucklehead,” “Panhead,” and “Shovelhead.” All hail Harley Royalty. All else are pretenders to the throne. If bikers everywhere ain’t callin’ yer motor by an Officially Unlicensed Nickname Based On The Top End Ratified By Decades Of Usage, you ain’t fit. Later.


3 Responses to ““NICKNAME GAME””

  1. thomas fitton Says:

    I just love that the Twin Cam is now being referred to as a “Twinkie”
    Now that seems about right

  2. Tim M. (47str8leg) Says:

    I ‘ve always called it the “blockhead” . “Evo” was the companys name and I’m no company man. Let the rubs and lites have their Evo.

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