To say that the 1980s were a tumultuous time for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is an understatement on par with describing Arlen Ness as "mildly talented." This was, after all, the decade when the firm underwent massive corporate restructuring when, in 1984, a team of Harley-Davidson executives purchased the company back from American Machine Foundry, a bowling equipment manufacturer located in Milwaukee. Motorcycles produced during the AMF years included some of Harley-Davidson's most beloved designs, including the sleek FXE Low Rider and the sporty FXRS. However, reliability problems plagued the Motor Company during this business partnership, and as a result, sales dwindled for a time. But even though many Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced during the early 1980s have seen their share of time on a mechanic's bench, many of the shovelhead models are still on the road today, bearing testament to the old adage, "There's no limit to how many times you can rebuild a good Harley motor."
When looking for a quality 1980s Harley-Davidson shovelhead, record of a full engine rebuild is absolutely essential, says Kim Krummel, chief instructor for the Harley-Davidson technician's training program at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida. Krummel's students are taught the intricacies of every Harley-Davidson powerplant from the knucklehead of the 1930s to today's Twin Cam models; the shovelhead presents special challenges all its own due to the rapid pace of change happening when the engines were last produced.
"We have a lot of shovelheads in our classrooms, and while the early V2 Evolution engines that were produced starting in 1985 model-year were very good motorcycles, the shovelheads from the early 1980s had a lot of problems with their top ends," Krummel said. One of the main problems had to do with the valves being manufactured with what proved to be the wrong material. As a result, the valve guides often failed due to a nationwide switch from leaded gasoline to unleaded fuels with chemical additives. Krummel worked as a service manager during the late 1980s and said the unleaded fuel caused many shovelhead valvetrains to suffer from severe overheating, with some valves sticking causing top end failure.
"Just about any 1980s shovelhead Harley-Davidson we uncrated back then ended receiving a complete valve job that included bronze valve guides, Manley stainless steel valves, and we had to open up the top end clearances a bit because the factory clearances were excessive. The factory techs claimed the bike should lose about one quart of oil every 500 miles, which was pretty excessive. It was going through so much oil because oil getting past the valve stems into the cylinders and that caused stems and guides to seize," Krummel said. A stock shovelhead without the necessary top end upgrades would only last somewhere between 500 and 5,000 miles, which means just about every shovel still on the road will have been rebuilt by now. Nevertheless, it pays to ask a seller for a complete service history with receipts and possibly a phone number for their mechanic.
Krummel said smoky exhausts are a sure sign that the top end work has either not been done or the motor is in need of a new set of piston rings and a cylinder re-bore, which can be costly as well. And though Harley-Davidson began outfitting its Big Twins with electronic ignition units as early as 1979, many of these early factory ignitions failed, and their owners replaced them with ancient points and condenser units. Krummel suggests asking sellers what sort of ignition their bike uses and replacing any existing points set-ups with a more powerful computer-controlled ignition module.That said, many shovelhead owners adore their machines, favoring the tight power-band, plentiful torque, and the simple four-speed transmission.
The shovelhead's 19-year reign came to a halt when Harley-Davidson rocked the world by introducing the V2 Evolution engine in its 1985 Big Twin models. The new machine gained instant critical acclaim for being lighter than its predecessor, its oil tight cases, a smooth-shifting five-speed transmission, and a top end that, if cared for with frequent oil changes, could easily last 80,000 miles or more between rebuilds. "It really wasn't until the Evolution bikes came along that Harley-Davidson was considered to be a company that had gotten their act together. These bikes sold really well from the start," Krummel recalls. Due to the Evolution engine's all-aluminum construction, there were a few problems early on with finding the right bottom end gaskets. The rapid expansion and contraction of an aluminum engine caused many cylinder base gaskets to squish, and leaks are not unheard of, he says. As testament to the early Evolution's strength, Krummel's 1986 FXRS is still ridden daily, with 100,000 miles showing on the clock. "These bikes are a lot of fun to ride, and if you buy one, it will work better the more you ride it," he said.