Harley Ironhead vs. Shovelhead: Which is Most Reliable?

There isn’t much waiting time. The terms “Ironhead” and “shovelhead” are widely used among bikers. Is there a more iconic name than Harley-Davidson when it comes to motorcycles? Without a doubt, no.

The brand may originate from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but it still creates fashionable and apparently irresistible products. Creating a proper rebuild of an ironhead vintage Sportster engine requires specialized skills and tools. Would you do an engine rebuild on an Ironhead or Shovelhead by yourself?

However, you may get the same blank stare I got years ago if you are a gear head. Harley Ironhead vs. Shovelhead, which is better for your dearest bike? It took me years to learn it, as most new bikers do. Well, let’s continue for more information.

Harley Ironhead Vs. Shovelhead: In Short Comparison

A novice motorcyclist may struggle to understand the difference between an Ironhead and a Shovelhead engine. Below is a brief comparison.

Displacement:- 883.0 ccm (53.88 cubic inches)Had 1340cc (82 cubic inches)
Power:- 40.0 HP (29.2 kW)) & 5500 RPM Maximum 66 horsepower at 5,600 RPM
Engine type:- V2, four-strokeV-twin engine which came with 74-cu
Top speed:- 152.9 km/h (95.0 mph)105.6 mph
Compression:- 7.0:1 7.4: 1
Fuel system:- CarburettorCarburettor
Fuel control:  Overhead Valves (OHV)Overhead Valves (OHV)
Cooling system:- AirHad only 10 fins for cooling
Gearbox:- 4-speed5-speed
Torque:- 50-60 ft-lb94 lb.-ft.
Transmission type/ final drive:- ChainBelt

Harley Ironhead Vs. Shovelhead: Overview of the Entire Engine:

Besides being the best-known motorcycle brand of all time, Harley-Davidson is also one of the most loved and oldest.

Ironhead motors are Harley-Davidson motorcycle engines with iron cylinder heads rather than aluminum cylinder heads.

Panheads and Shovelheads are similar enough that some Panhead owners modified their engines to turn them into Shovelheads. Simply by replacing pistons, cylinders, and heads with Shovelhead products.


In 1986, the Evolution engine replaced it. It was manufactured from 1957 until 1985. The ironhead motorcycle engine was named for its cylinder heads which are made of iron rather than aluminum as with other Harley-Davidson motors.

A four-stroke Ironhead engine features 45° V-Twin OHVs with 2 valves per cylinder. This engine has a capacity of 997 cubic centimeters / 60.8 cubic inches, a bore x stroke of 81.0 x 96.8 mm, and air cooled cooling system.

A Shovelhead is a 1,310 cubic centimeters engine with a bore diameter of 3.498 inches and a stroke of 4.250 inches (88.85 x 107.95 mm) that measures 80 inches long and 1,310cc in capacity.

After 1980, compression was still fairly low, at 8:1 or 7.4: 1. Since its inception in 1978, the 80-inch engine was referred to as the FLH. Its smaller 1,200-cc counterpart was called the FL. That model was discontinued in 1978.


A maximum power output of 57.00 horsepower (41.6 kW) is achieved at 6000 revolutions per minute. The Harley-Davidson ironhead’s maximum speed can be reached at 185.0 km/h (115.0 mph) with its power train. A chassis characteristic affects the handling and comfort of the car, as well as how it holds on the road.

In the early 80-inch/FLH Shovelhead, the engine could produce 66 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. In the period 1970-1984, maximum horsepower declined to 62, reaching a peak at 5,400 rpm. Horsepower dropped to 60 in 1978-80 models, then climbed to 65 in 1981-84 models.


Harley-Davidson’s Sportster is a staple of today’s motorcycle lineup. The original “Ironhead” overheated-valve engine was used in 1957. When the Sportster was introduced in 1967, it was the first motorcycle to have an electric start.

With the “Pan Head” engine two years earlier, Harley-Davidson’s bigger bikes got their electric start. Additionally, the old “Ironhead” Sporties had a right-side gear shifter, while the rear brake was on the left.

The DOT mandated a change in 1975. The modern Sportster was introduced with a 1200cc engine in 1986. From 1988 to 1991, the butterfly carburetor was replaced by a constant velocity carburetor, and the 4 speed was upgraded to a 5 speed.

Harley Davidson Shovelhead motorcycles came to market in order to add power as well as performance. After the Knucklehead and Panhead, Harley’s Shovelhead was the third rendition of its OHV V-twin.

There were heavier motorcycles during this time that featured rear suspension, electric starting, etc. Depending on the type of prototype, the system can, of course, be impacted in a variety of ways.

It was the Duo-Glide system, which was later renamed Electra Glide, when the electric start was added shortly before the Shovelhead was introduced in 1958. During the period of 1966 to 1985, Harley Davidson Shovelhead remained on the market.

Special Features

The latest additions include new larger brakes with an electrical harness and the option of installing ABS. Besides the keyless entry, the Sportster got a new speedometer and tachometer, as well as a higher compression ratio.

Forty-Eight Special features higher handlebars and more chrome to add a decorative touch to the dark-out engine, frame, and wheels. A large exhaust system, LED lighting units on the face, and front and rear wheels measuring 17- and 16-inches give the vehicle an impressive presence on the road.

There was an angled drop of 78.5 degrees on the Harley-Davidson Shovelhead valves. There was an increase in compression ratio from 6.0:1 to 8.0:1 or more, generating more heat. Built on the revolutionary Revolution Max platform, the updated 2021 Sportster boasts more power, a lightweight chassis, torque on demand, contemporary technology, and classic styling all at the same time.

In the following many years, Harley would use the Panhead until the Evo, or Evolution; the engine became available – another Harley signature V-twin.

Cost Comparison

The Ironhead isn’t very expensive. Harley-Davidson Ironhead engine prices on recent models start around MSRP of $6,195 and go up from there. Prices can vary depending on color, specification, and location.

Shovelhead engines are priced according to the engine’s specification but start at just $3,495, including shipping.

Ironhead Vs. Shovelhead, Which One Better to Run?

What is reliability? Harley-Davidson has produced one of the most reliable engines ever with the XL Evo. Ironheads look cool, but you are rarely going to see Evos on the roadside. Harley Ironhead vs. Shovelhead, which one performs superior on the road?

Despite being produced from the mid ’60s to the early ’80s, the Shovelhead engine used modified technology as well. Both have their own great characteristics and unbelievable features. After choosing your preferred one, you can move forward safely.


What Harley-Davidson has the most power?

Harley-Davidson announces the most powerful and biggest engine ever. With 121 horsepower and 131 ft-lbs of torque, the Harley-Davidson screaming’ Eagle 131 Crate Engine is the pinnacle of engine power! In addition, Harley-Davidson says it will offer its highest-capacity motors in self-fit crates.

How many miles will a Harley Sportster last?

When properly maintained and ridden responsibly, Harley-Davidson motorcycles can last more than 75,000 miles. Some Harley-Davidson motorcycles have over 100,000 miles.

Are shovelhead engines reliable?

Shovelhead motorcycles are as reliable as any other motorcycle. If you follow the specifications in the manual, use high-quality parts, and perform maintenance, these tools work properly. However, if you ignore those steps, you’ll end up on the roadside every time.

Last Word

Having read this blog, you know Harley Ironhead vs. Shovelhead appropriately. Today’s models are not designed for rebuilding their engines like Ironhead Sportster engines. In addition to the main bearings, the races of the bearings can be honed oversize and fitted with new bearings with oversized rollers.

It is safe to bore original Ironhead cylinders up to .060″ oversize (not aftermarket). However, Harley designed the Shovelhead in order to increase the power of heavier, rear-suspension-equipped bikes. Nevertheless, it went through several exclusive changes. Now it’s your turn.

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