I have been known as “Irish” since childhood. Nicknames as they are, were a staple of my childhood. Bones, Mick, Stone, Red, Gimp, all names given childhood friends short of proper monikers evidencing some abbreviated surname to dispense with the formality of actual God given names. Why? I don’t know. I’m sure the parents of my childhood pals were perplexed that we all went to such lengths to re-name their kids. Such is the difference between us and the animal kingdom. Whales, baboons, blue birds, chipmunks all have their own language, but only one species uses nicknames. We do. We toss perfectly acceptable and proper names aside for a shorter ‘street’ version acceptable within our own specific social circle. This odd variance of human language is not limited to individuals. It can apply to professional sports teams, car manufacturers, big cities, subway lines, favorite dishes and YES, motorcycles. Ergo, these thoughts.
This is especially true in the world of Harley Davidson. In the hundred plus years of Harley existence there have been many different nicknames for Harley models both of the bike itself as well as for the engines that have propelled them forward. Not chosen by the company, but by the general public at large. Concocted, circulated and branded by those of us inclined to do so, you and me and our biker forefathers. One of the earliest nickname examples we can all recognize would be the “silent grey fellow”, the informal moniker given to the “1911 HD 8A single”. This is the iconic Harley. The grey bicycle looking single cylinder with a leather drive belt on the white rubber tires seen in so many early Harley ads. Where do these nicknames come from? What do they mean? Why are they applied to certain models? Well, here are some of the reasons. The first engine nickname that comes to mind is ‘pea-shooter’. This motor was a staple of HD manufacturing between 1909 and 1911. This 49.5 cubic inch engine produced a whopping 7 horsepower. Not much by today’s standards, hence the nickname. Perhaps a reflection of its single thumper compression cycle, thump, thump, thump, like peas through a straw.
A decade later we have what is known as the “F-Head” or more commonly referred to “Pocket Valve” engine which came along in 1911 and was produced until 1929. Why such a name? In an F-head/IOE engine the intake manifold and its valves are located atop the cylinders, in the cylinder head, and are operated by rocker arms which reverse the motion of the pushrods so that the intake valves open downward into the combustion chamber. The exhaust manifold and its valves are located beside or as part of the cylinders, in the block. The exhaust valves are either roughly or exactly parallel with the pistons; their faces point upwards and they are not operated by pushrods, but by contact with a camshaft through the tappet or valve lifters. The valves were offset to one side, forming what seemed to be a pocket, leading to the term “pocket valve” being used for IOE engines. IOE, referring to the configuration of ‘inlet over exhaust’. Well, if that is not some grindingly boring shit, I don’t know what is?! Necessary precursor discussion to grasp the gravity of the nicknames we take for granted.
Some of these early engines are not seen commonly today and are a rare find for collectors. In the line of HD engines that have an iconic nickname I think the first in the series that is universally recognized by novice and expert alike would be the “flathead”. Many examples exist today making the flathead a common bike show sight. Initially produced in a 45 inch configuration, it did not make a lot of power though its simplicity of design is its draw even today. Born in 1929 it was mass produced until 1936 until the advent of the iconic “knucklehead”. The “flathead” was so simple and successful it was continually produced by HD up and until 1973 in one of several different displacements and configurations. Engineered for 44 years, the “flathead” was given that name simply because the top of the engine looked flat.
After the rise and fall of the flathead, one of the most iconic nicknames ever given to a Harley engine was crowned the “knucklehead”. This engine is revered by collectors for its beauty as well as for its reliability. It was so named because of the very distinct shape of its rocker boxes at the top of the engine. The vertical twin 45 degree pushrod actuated overhead valve engine has two valves per cylinder. Produced beginning in 1936 up and until 1947 it produced about 35 horsepower. This was a real hot rod for its day. These engines alone bring 15 to 20 thousand dollars in good shape today. I have written of my 1937 ‘knuck’ which hangs on the wall in my office. It is unrestored and could not be in worse shape, but at least I can say I have one!
As time marches on and HD engineers make advances the next models develop. The ‘panhead’ is the next nickname given to an engine and is perhaps my favorite. With valve covers resembling something your Mom would boil eggs in, a nickname was hatched. Still readily available on the vintage market it has a plethora of loyal followers making restoration much easier (and a tad cheaper) than that of the ‘knucklehead’. The pan produced 55 to 60 horsepower in the 61 inch and 74 inch configurations respectively. A large gain in power even by today’s standards. My personal collection contains several panheads and my ’52 ‘sport’ model can be seen in the accompanying picture. All good things come to an end and thus even my beloved Pan was replaced by the motor company. In 1965 the ‘Shovelhead’ came along replacing the Pan after 17 successful years. I am not now, nor have I ever been a fan of the shovel. It’s ugly, unreliable, smells of AMF wonkyness and we all know what that means.
The first ‘modern’ moniker of the ‘Evolution’ motor (1984 to 2000) was nicknamed the ‘Blockhead. The “evo” is most distinct from earlier Harley-Davidson engine designs by virtue of its reliability, oil tightness, and ability to run hard under all kinds of circumstances for tens of thousands of miles farther than any of its predecessors. Both the heads and cylinders of the Evolution engine are made from aluminum, which is both lighter than cast iron, reducing overall vehicle weight and is a superior thermal conductor to cast iron – improving air cooling efficiency. Don’t get me wrong, this baby will still pee on your garage floor, just not as copiously as a pan. The problem stems from when the heads and cylinders are cast of different materials. They expand and contract at different rates which induces a disparate relative motion; this motion ruins the gasket seal and eventually necessitates replacement. The blocky rocker boxes atop the power plant earns the name “blockhead“. My neighbor has earned this nickname but that stems from something else.
The modern “Twin Cam” motor is produced today and is yet too young to elicit any romantic notions with a cool nickname. Starting with the 1999 model year it has been made to date in 88, 96, 103 and 110 inch configurations. While I own one mounted in my modern Road Glide, it does not cause me to wax nostalgic. Although with 10 or 12 iron butts on this bike I do like the engine’s reliability. I don’t even really have a decent tool kit on board. Don’t need one. I suspect this bike and her motor will earn a nickname someday. Perhaps after wear and tear and miles accumulate. To date, in asking around, I’ve come up with no nickname for the Twin Cam. Me, I’ve got my nickname. Evidence of a cultural heritage, not much unlike Harley. So, if you have never been known by a nickname, give it some thought. Although, you can’t give yourself one. Your pals must assign it. Ask around. Find out. You’ll be surprised at the answers you get for your nickname. Maybe even surprised at how you’re perceived by those around you. For the good or the bad. Good luck, a nickname if it does anything else, endears you to those who invoke it. Well, signing off for now. Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home. –“IRISH”. Written by Steve Murrin, The Original Biker Lawyer.