Harley spotter’s guide: how to tell one hog from another

Telling one Harley-Davidson motorcycle apart from another can sometimes be difficult. Tips on identifying the different makes and models of this famous American motorcycle are presented and discussed.

By now you’ve probably recognized that Harley-Davidson motorcycles are appearing regularly in HOT ROD magazine. But while you may have spent years leafing through HOT ROD and have become well versed in the differences between ’67 and ’69 Camaros or ’87 and ’89 Mustangs, you may not be as familiar with the different types of Harleys. That being the case, we thought it appropriate to give you some pointers on how to recognize an Evolution-powered Softail from a Panhead in a rigid frame.

Panhead? Are we talking about Harleys, or are we talking about cookware? In actuality, the history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is filled with nicknames and factory-generated titles that are common lingo among those who ride the American legend. Read on.


Since its debut around 1909, the Harley-Davidson V-twin engine has undergone several redesigns and changes. The five manifestations of the Harley V-twin are all named for the appearance of the engines’ upper ends. Chronologically, they are the Flathead, the Knucklehead, the Panhead, the Shovelhead and the Evolution (also called the Blockhead).

The Flathead (1929-1974) was similar in valve operation to the venerable flathead engines that powered now-vintage American automobiles. Harley’s Flathead, with its constant-loss oiling system, remained in production until the mid-’70s, when it was used to power the familiar three-wheeled police trikes. However, 1936 saw the introduction of a closed, circulating oiling system and overhead valves (the first for a motorcycle in the U.S.) in the form of the Knucklehead (1936-1947). The Knucklehead earned its name from its unique, lumpy-shaped rocker boxes with two large rocker-shaft nuts visibly protruding outward like a pair of knuckles.

Following the now quite desirable Knucklehead was the Panhead (1948-1965). Ask just about anyone who loves Harleys, and they’ll tell you that owning a Panhead-powered scoot would be near the top of their wish list. Something about the look of the engine with its pan-shaped rocker covers (a change made by Harley to reduce the characteristic oil leaks) has made it the ultimate in classic looks.

The successor to the Panhead was the Shovelhead engine (1966-1984), with its namesake shovel-shaped rocker boxes. During the first three years of Shovelhead production, the engine’s charging system was still based on a generator. Thus, the generator-drive crankcases used (similar to those used on the Panhead) created the “Pan/Shovel” engine–although many would rather call it a “Generator Shovel.” Alternators were debuted on the ’70 Shovelheads and have remained standard ever since.

Probably the least-striking engine in the lineup would be the Evolution V-twin. Nicknamed the Blockhead, the Evo is used in the current generation of Harley-Davidsons and has been in production since 1984. The Evolution is appropriately named, since it makes Harley’s effort to maximize the design of the company’s 45-degree V-twin for power, longevity and the absence of oil leaks that had been virtually a given for Harley owners.


Though Flatheads, Knuckleheads and Panheads are quite desirable among collectors and enthusiasts, the mainstay of Harley-Davidson power on the road today is made up primarily of Shovelheads and Evos. Therefore, we’ll focus our attention from here out on spotting and identifying Harleys that use those engines. That still gives us plenty to look for, considering the many differences between Wide Glide, Narrow Glide and Springer front ends as well as swing-arm and Softail frames, custom combinations, aftermarket alternative parts and so on. That list represents more combinations than would be within the bounds of sanity to cover, but we’ll give it a try.


While we take for granted such things as electric starters, front and rear suspensions, disc brakes and an oiling system that keeps oil in the engine, Harley’s history contains some trivia facts that may make you appreciate such luxuries even more. Take front brakes, for example. Your car would be difficult to stop without front discs or drums, and Harleys are no different. But it wasn’t until 1929 that Harley-Davidson developed a drum in the hub of the front rim. That might seem late for a motorcycle manufacturer that started in 1903, but consider the even crazier idea of a constant-loss oiling system. In it, oil was simply dumped out of the engine after being misted into the valvetrain, which is why Harleys were notorious as leakers. The 1936 introduction of a closed and pressurized oiling system in the Knucklehead must have been a boon to garage floors everywhere.

You’ve probably already checked out the photo and caption on Springer-type front ends, but did you know that although 1988 brought about the current design of the classic front end, the early version lasted until 1948, which was also the first year of the Panhead engine? That made for a rare one-year factory configuration, which was replaced by the hydraulic fork-style front end in 1949, giving us the Hydra Glide. Keep in mind that those bikes had no rear suspension other than a spring-dampened seat and, of course, the rear tire.

Fortunately, the “rigid” frame was succeeded by the now-familiar swing-arm rear suspension in 1958, much to the benefit of spinal cords everywhere. That change in ride quality brought about a change in nomenclature from Hydra Glide to Duo Glide. Even so, there was still a kick-start lever on the right side. That was changed in 1965 when Harley-Davidson added electric-start capability to its big bike, changing its name yet again to Electra Glide, which is still one of the most popular Harleys to own. Even with the addition of the electric starter, though, the kicker was still part of the configuration.

All that time, the transmission that backed up many of the later bikes was a four-speed with a chain rear drive. Even into the first several years of the Evolution engine’s use in production, the powertrain was rounded out with the proven four-speed/chain rear drive with kick start. That was the norm until 1988, when a five-speed tranny was added to the Evolution along with the ultrasmooth rear drive belt and the disappearance of the kick starter.


Although we only touched the surface of configurations and historical notes, we’ve given you the basics for identifying one Harley-Davidson from another. In the future, we’ll be going into greater detail on various Harley models, but at least you know now that when somebody mentions a Panhead, he isn’t talking about cookware.

Here’s the one bike that’s sure to be at the top of wish lists everywhere-the FLHR Electra Glide Road King. New for 1994, the Road King brings back some classic styling and road-ready features. The windshield and passenger seat are easily removed for a great solo-cruiser look. For nostalgia, the full-dresser-style headlight cover is back, and a twin-cap five-gallon Fat Bob fuel tank rounds out this modern-day classic. Consumer demand is looking to make this scooter hard to get, to contact your dealer for more information.

The FXDS-CONV Dyna Low Rider Convertible is yet another star in Harley-Davidson’s ’94 lineup. If you’re looking to take a road trip, the windshield and saddlebags will make the journey a breeze, and they can be removed for sport cruising. The 28-degree chassis gives quick and agile control, and the suspension features longer travel and improved damping for an all-around better ride. Dual front discs provide optimum braking, and there’s even a chrome “sissy bar” for your passenger.

The Sportster (XLH-series designation) has long been a favorite among racers and entry-level Harley enthusiasts. The Sportster is the lightest of the Harley-Davidson line, and like its larger Low Rider siblings, uses a swing-arm frame. At a quick glance, there are two simple ways to tell a Sporty from a Low Rider: First, unlike the Low Riders and Softails, the Sportster uses one common engine/transmission case for the powertrain. Second, on the newer models, the final-belt-drive pulley is on the right side, whereas on the bigger bikes, it’s on the left. Shown here is the 1200 Sportster, the only 1200cc model built by Harley-Davidson. The other engine size currently available is the 883, which powers the rest of the Sportster line.

The FXR series uses the standard rubber-engine-mount frame, which differs in suspension design from the Dyna Glide (FXD) series, although both frames are swing-arm types. The FXR Super Glide is currently the lowest-riding Harley made, with a seat height of only 26 inches. Highly customized straight from the factory, the FXLR Low Rider Custom is the only other FX-series bike that comes stock with a 21-inch front rim (the other being the FXDWG Dyna Wide Glide). The FXR series has long been the favorite of those looking for an excellent base for building quick and agile racers. Again, an easy identification technique between these bikes and the Sportsters is that the FX/FD-series bikes, like the Softails, are powered by the 1340cc Big Twin, and the engine and five-speed tranny are in separate cases. Also, the Low Riders have a lower seat height than the Sportys.

When someone uses the term “dresser,” he is talking about touring bikes that are fully dressed with a front fairing, several arrays of hard saddlebags, lights, radios and a whole other list of accessories. The FL-series dressers use the swing-arm frame and are by far the easiest to spot because they are the largest and heaviest bikes that roll out of the factory. There are four dressers to choose from including the new FLHR Road King shown earlier. The big touring bike shown here is the ’94 FLHTC Ultra Classic Electra Glide.

At this point, all we’ve mentioned concerning frames has been the swing-arm type that is used on all Harleys except Softails and rigids (Hardtails). The FX models are fitted with 21-inch front wheels, and the FL models feature 16-inch front wheels. The left photo shows the ’94 FXSTC Softail Custom with its wide-fork front end and solid rear wheel. At the right is the ’94 FLSTN Heritage Softail Special. The thing to look for when spotting a Softail is the lack of rear shocks. The shocks are visible on Sportsters and Low Riders. The Softail frame was designed to mimic the look of the older rigid frames while providing a smoother ride that wouldn’t pound your spine to bits. Also available on the Softail is the Springer front end, another modern interpretation of an earlier design.

Here’s a closer look at the differences between Softail and Low Rider/Sportster rear suspensions. Photo A shows a Softail swing arm that is designed to resemble a rigid frame. The Softail’s rear shock absorbers are located under the frame in order to maintain the look, whereas the swing-arm frames such as the FX/FD Low Rider frame and the Sportster frame have visibly mounted rear shocks attached to the swing arm. There is no rear suspension other than the seat and rear tire on a rigid frame.

There are two basic types of Harley front ends: the standard hydraulic fork and the Springer. The most current incarnation of the Springer front end is found on the FXSTS Springer Softail, although the early Springers were around long before the Hydra Glide introduced hydraulic forks in 1949. The Wide Glide and Narrow Glide front ends differ mostly in the spacing between the forks. On the dressers (old and new), Fat Boys and Heritage Softails, the Wide Glide forks have a 7-inch headlight (with a headlight cover on the dressers), a chrome triple tree cover and chrome upper-fork tube covers. The new FXDWG Dyna Wide Glide has a 5-inch headlight and no decorative covers, similar to Wide Glides of the past.

The Flathead engine was in production from 1929 all the way to 1974 when it was still used in police trikes and similar vehicles. The Flathead is easy to spot with its finned cylinder heads, which were usually a different color than the rest of the engine. In 1936, a closed oiling system replaced the constant-loss system on Flatheads, and there was a new engine-the Knucklehead. The Knucklehead lasted from 1936 to 1947, and despite its early problems, remains a very popular engine among custom builders and nostalgia buffs with its large knuckle-like rocker-shaft nuts on the outer rocker cover.

The years 1948-1965 brought the most popular engine to date-the Panhead. The stamped pan-shaped rocker covers give this engine its name and are a key to its popularity among those who are searching for the ultimate custom/nostalgic look. There are even components available to make an Evolution resemble a Panhead, underscoring the popularity of the venerable Pan. Succeeding the Pan was the Shovelhead from 1966-1984. The Shovel is the most prevalent pre-Evolution engine around and is easily recognized from its characteristic shovel-shaped rocker boxes and the rocker-shaft nuts visible from the right side. On the other hand, when you say the name Evolution, you’re talking about the current-generation Big Twin Harley engine. The Evo–nicknamed “Blockhead” due to its unpresumptuous square rocker boxes–first hit production in 1984 and is the current powerplant design. With its longevity and reliability, the 80-cube Evo powers all of the new bikes and is popular among those with custom-built bikes everywhere.

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