Custom : Back to Basics Shovelhead

A veteran customizer with plenty of Old School tricks up his sleeve rocks it ’70s style to rebuild a basket Shovelhead.

1974 Harley Shovelhead Custom

Back to Basics

Back in the 1960s I started thinking about motorcycles, and by 1970 I was working in a Honda shop and starting my apprenticeship as a motorcycle mechanic (mechanics were still mechanics back then … not “techs”). 

By 1972 I was working at a chopper shop in Daytona Beach and learning the tricks of the chopper trade from some very talented guys. The things that I learned back then I still use today on all the bikes I build. This is a perfect example of a ‘70s style custom.

The Shovelhead came to me as a basket case from a very good friend who had gotten it from the original owner back in the 1970s. He tore it down back then, but never put it back together.

1974 Harley Shovelhead CustomI wanted to make this into a somewhat period correct style from that era, but was still looking for a good handling bike. Consequently I stayed away from stretching and raking the frame. The chassis was the first thing to look at. Most guys used to move the lower shock mount or hang shorter shocks to get a low stance. I took an old trick and applied it here. By cutting a wedge out of the lower front of the swingarm just behind the pivot I was able to set the bike two inches lower than stock and keep the swingarm parallel with the bottom of the frame and fender struts. Now the Shovelhead looks stock but sits low without looking as though it’s bent in the middle. 

Another thing that was often done was reusing stock parts by modifying them (once there was a time you couldn’t simply open a parts book and buy whatever you wanted). So, the stock rear fender was lowered one inch and trimmed even with the bottom of the struts. I also trimmed the rear of the fender and used a tail light that was popular back then. 

British bike and Sportster forks were sometimes used on early Big Twin custom Harleys to keep the front end looking light. On this bike I went with a Harley narrow glide fork but used a set of British style slider covers. The front fender was a newer Sportster piece that I altered with light looking side supports made from 1/4-round rod. With the addition of two-inch rise drag bars the chassis now took on a low, tight all business appearance.

Modified Sportster or peanut tanks were the choice for most ‘70s customs. But I was looking for a little more gas capacity, so I went with a set of five-gallon Fat Bob tanks and, again going into my bag of old tricks, I “dished” them. Tanks are dished with a torch, a hammer, a bit of time and a lot of patience. I welded a guide made from 1/8-round rod to the tank in the area that is to be dished and then slowly heat and beat the metal into a smooth dish. If you take your time with this and work the steel when it’s at the cherry red stage, it’s a fairly easy job. 

Who cared about laws and safety back then? So, in keeping with that attitude, no speedo was required. But Fat Bob tanks don’t look good without a speedo and housing, so I fabricated two 18-gauge steel panels and welded them to the tops of the tanks. I left a 1/8-inch gap between them, and by adding a set of early ‘70s tank emblems I have what I think is a pretty cool looking set of tanks.

1974 Harley Shovelhead CustomPipes are always the first items replaced on a new bike. This was definitely the case with the old Superglide 2-into-1 header. Fortunately I kept some of those OEM pipes in my archives and decided to sacrifice a set to this bike. Basic 12-inch shorty mufflers were always popular and by slightly modifying the header by raising the tail of the top pipe about 1/2 -inch I was able to mount the dual shorties with no problem. This bike was built with economy in mind, so by ceramic coating the header and using the $18-shorties the pipes helped to give me a proper look and stay in the budget.

I went with a GMA front brake caliper because I just happened to have a good used one kicking around. For the rear, I chose a new old stock Performance Machine four-piston caliper and chromed rotor that I have had since the mid 1980s. As I said earlier: custom bikes were often built with reused and modified stock and old parts found in the shop. The front and rear master cylinders were also NOS Performance Machine pieces.

To keep the style of the bike looking right I went with the original Harley FX mid controls and still kept the stock pegs.  I mount Corbin seats on most of my bikes, at least the ones I plan to ride any distance. In this case the seat is a Hollywood Solo. Nice choice for an old Shovelhead, comfortable and with a cool mounting system that goes throughout the frame so there is no tab sticking out the back.

I kept the engine and driveline fairly stock—the heads were sent to Jerry Branch by the previous owner for a valve and porting job so nothing was required there. The cylinders are a plus-20 bore and run a 9.5:1 ratio. A mild cam and hydraulic lifters keep it easy starting and smooth running. Electronic ignitions are generally my choice but I stayed with the old points and condenser system on this one. The bike is electric start but I did keep the kicker as well and I have to say that kick starting it is pretty cool. 

One component that is very helpful in the starting procedure and the way this bike runs in general is the modified Harley CV carburetor I installed. These carbs make an amazing difference on the Shovelhead. 

The aluminum driveline parts were bead blasted, then clear and black powder coated. This is an economical and easy-to-maintain finish. Harley brought out a line of accessory covers for various components somewhere in the ‘80s called “G-Tech.” I used some of these genuine accessories but painted them the same as the sheet metal to help bring some colour into the bike. The air breather is a remake of an old Firth Cycle accessory part from the 1950s.

1974 Harley Shovelhead CustomTo me there was only one choice for the paint scheme on this throwback. You really can’t go wrong with classic Harley-Davidson black & orange with a white breaker stripe. I use House of Kolor paint on all my bikes and this one is done with Jet Black and Tangello Pearl.

I’ve built a lot of bikes over my 40 plus years in the motorcycle business, but I have to say that these old Shovelhead bikes are still my favourites. With the parts and products that are available today there is no reason these bikes can’t be rebuilt used and ridden like the new ones. The good thing about them is that if you do have a problem they are easy to work on—no computer required.