Breaking Bad: The Groundbreaking Harley-Davidson FXWG Shovelhead

Harley-Davidson FXWG With Flames
Harley-Davidson FXWG With Flames. Poto: Harley-Davidson Archives.

Any motorcycle manufacturer with almost 120 years under its belt is sure to have many impressive motorcycles within its lineup. Harley-Davidson, though, has the proud boast of having era-defining models present in every decade.

For this edition of our series on rideable classics, we’re focusing on the Harley-Davidson FXWG Shovelhead. Launched in 1980, the Wide Glide was a groundbreaking model that ran right up to the end of Shovelhead production in 1984.

To clarify a point, the original Shovelhead FXWG enjoyed a production run of a mere four years. Evolution and Twin Cam Harley’s would continue to use the trademark Wide Glide front-end and name for another 30 years.

Apart from giving George Orwell a free headline, 1984 was a huge transitional year for Harley-Davidson. It saw the launch of a model boasting an entirely new engine and frame.

Imagine wandering into a Harley dealership at that time and seeing the last of the FXWG Shovels standing alongside the first of the Evolution Softails. Now that would have been a sight worth seeing.

Before exploring what makes the FXWG special, it’s worth noting that the model almost didn’t make it off the production line. Despite surviving the Great Depression and two World Wars, the late ’70s were a turbulent time for the Motor Co.

The Troubled Harley-Davidson AMF Years

Bought out in 1969 by American Machine and Foundry (AMF), the company had pretty much come to the end of its shelf life some ten years later. AMF built bowling alley equipment, and Harley purists describe this decade as the bowling ball years, blaming AMF for almost steering Harley-Davidson into a financial brick wall.

AMF, in real terms, returned Harley-Davidson to profitability investing heavily in a new production plant in York, Pennsylvania. Without which, Harley could not have climbed their way back to the top. Also, having promoted a young Willie G to head of styling, the AMF years saw some of the company’s most iconic models. These included the Super Glide, Low Rider, and Fat Bob models.

To cut a long and interesting story short, quality control issues were a significant problem. And the Shovel engine was still causing major warranty problems. So despite the Super Glide selling well, when AMF put the company up for sale in 1980, no buyers stepped forward. It was one year later that 13 Harley execs, including Willie G, staged a buy-out.

The critical date is 1980. Despite the turmoil and growing apprehension on the company’s future, Willie G. kept his head down, searching parts bins for more inspiration. The result was the FXWG.

If the Super Glide borrowed from the Sportster, then the Wide Glide was a chip off the old (FLH) Electra Glide block.

Harley-Davidson Shovelhead Model Overview

Model Year Features
FLH 1979 The bike that gave the Wide Glide its famous front end, gas tanks and 80ci engine
FXWG 1980 Groundbreaking first year model featured classic flame job
FXWG 1981 Harley go it alone and remove the AMF logo from the gas tank
FXWG 1982 Single color paint jobs with the bar and shield center stage, new speedo, HD brand padlock
FXR 1983 HD introduce a limited run of 500 ‘twin belt’ Wide Glides. First year screw in gas cap
FXR 1984 Final year, larger rear rotor and master cylinder, single front disc, new paintjobs without bar and shield

The Shovelhead Engine

The Wide Glide was one of the first Harley’s to get the upgraded 80ci engine. To be exact, it was 1337cc, which equates to 81.58 ci, so I’m guessing the marketing men stepped in here. The extra cubic inches didn’t increase the 67hp offered by its 1200cc predecessor. It did however, produce a more even spread of torque.

The 80-cube logo was proudly displayed on the new ‘ham can’ shaped air-cleaner, which in turn covered a 38mm Keihin carb. The mere thought of Japanese-made parts finding their way onto a Harley sent a shiver down the spine of Harley diehards. Yet more was to come.

The electronic breakerless ignition also came from the Land of the Rising Sun, as were the bike’s trademark 41mm Showa forks.

Like all big twins before it, the chaincase came in two separate pieces. Meanwhile, the final chain drive got hitched up to a four-speed box.

Although the Shovelhead received some bad press during the ’70s, it wasn’t entirely Harley’s fault. Top-end oil leaks were ongoing, as was the overheating, but those weren’t the only problems.

Three major events meant that the Shovelhead didn’t have a fair shake of the stick. First off, as an answer to large numbers of warranty claims, AMF made the dubious decision to up production. Although this resulted in more sales, it also meant more warranty claims and quality control issues.

Secondly, the mid 70’s fuel crisis meant inferior quality gas at the pump. This caused the agricultural Shovels to overheat, knock, and burn out valves, causing more havoc.

Finally, and especially bad for the FXWG, AMF President Rodney Gott, a genuine Harley enthusiast responsible for turning the company around, retired. His replacement was Tom York, a bean counter, who didn’t care what Harley produced as long as it resulted in a profit.

York Pulled Out

It’s a miracle that bikes like the FXWG made it to production amidst the doom and gloom that settled over the company. In effect, York stopped investment. Thus, no R&D on new models, which meant Willie G had to come up with another show-stopping parts bin special, the FXWG.

The original Super Glide is often referred to as the first factory custom, but this title goes to the Wide Glide, and here’s why.

Despite being blamed for many poor decisions, above all, William G. Davidson was first and foremost a Harley man. After all, it was his great-granddaddy who started the company.


As head of styling, Willie G. attended Harley events around the USA to gauge feeling and, more importantly, to see what riders were doing to their bikes.

He was seeing a lot of Electra Glides stripped-down, bobbed, and wearing a skinny front wheel. It was this that without a doubt gave him visions of the Wide Glide.

During 1980, Harley also produced the FXB Sturgis. Although it may have stolen the limelight with its revolutionary belt final drive, the engine was 100 percent the same spec as the FXWG. In addition, to make both engines more distinctive, extensive matt and gloss black featured on the crankcases and primary.

The frame was also the same, but that’s where the similarities ended. The most notable part of the FXWG is the front end, and to achieve that ‘larger than life’ chopper look, Harley had to conjure up a little magic.

Increasing the rake on a factory frame, apart from creating potential handling problems, also means a separate production run. Harley took the Electra Glide triple clamps (top and bottom fork yokes) and line-bored them at an angle so as to produce the bike with the minimum of fuss.

This machining meant that it was possible to maintain the frame’s standard neck angle. The rake, though, saw an increase to 33 degrees meaning the forks could be a little longer.

With the FLH triple clamps stripped of their tin covers, carefully machined, and chrome, the new front end stood out loud and proud. The addition of a 21ins front wheel and skinny fender made the front take on monster proportions. Nothing like it had ever rolled off a production line. Seeing one on the street in the early ’80s was a genuine jaw-dropping moment.

The visual effect of the bike’s gargantuan proportions didn’t end there. The headlight was tiny, and the double-disc setup added to the meaty look.

On such a narrow tire, twin discs aren’t always a good idea. However, Harley had overcome this by using the most ineffectual brake calipers in existence, so locking up the front wheel wasn’t ever a problem. The final optical illusion for making the front end appear so long was the addition of buckhorn handlebars sitting on top of 4ins risers.

Nicknamed ‘Bob and a Half’

The FXWG also borrowed the Electra Glide’s gas tanks. The standard ‘fat bob’ gas tanks were 3.5 gals, but the Glides were a colossal 5-gals, hence the nickname, ‘bob and a half’ tanks.

The first year of the model also featured the most sought-after paint job with classic orange/yellow flames with a white outline on a black background. The flames were hand-painted, and it would be the last time that the AMF logo would sit on top of the Harley bar and shield.

Hunting Harley's 1980 FXWG Flamed wide glide part 1

Hunting Harley's 1980 FXWG Flamed wide glide part 2

In 1981, following a Harley management buy-out, the AMF logo got ditched from every gas tank.

The deeply buttoned two-piece seat and short sissy bar may have appeared incongruous on the Sturgis. Yet, on the Wide Glide, the sofa-sized seat looked right at home. Further back, the seats sat on top of a wide fat bob rear fender. The number plate/tail tidy came courtesy of the ill-fated Harley Café Racer XLCR.

Best Foot Forward

Last but not least on our list of FXWG innovations are the forward foot controls. While some of the other Glide models had highway pegs upfront, the Wide Glide was the first to move the controls forward.

The position was no problem for chopper pilots. But, the Wide Glide was a mass-produced model, and the foot forward stance took some getting used to.

If ever a motorcycle was the sum total of its parts, it’s the 1980 FXWG Wide Glide. Whether borrowed from another Harley in the range or made for that model, each component combines to make the Wide Glide.

Comparison with the Competition

Comparing the bike to factory customs of the time is somewhat of a non-starter. The Japanese did not have any large-capacity V-twin cruisers in their lineup. So if you wanted a chopper vibe without having to go to all the trouble of building one, the Wide Glide was the only show in town.

Unfortunately, that situation would only last for one year. In 1981, Yamaha did the unthinkable. It became the first Japanese manufacturer to design an all-new large capacity ‘American style’ V-twin.

The XV750 Virago hit the floor running and opened the floodgates. By the end of that year, you had the choice of factory customs in almost every engine configuration imaginable. The Yamaha would never entice existing Harley riders away from the marquee, but the Virago, Intruder, Shadow, and Vulcan all lured younger riders away.

Encouraging the latest generation of riders is something Harley-Davidson has never addressed. As a result, the Motor Co. has seen its traditional market drop dramatically in the last decade.

Rideable Classic?

With individual styling and innovative components, it’s clear to say that we’ve made a case for the Harley-Davidson FXWG Shovelhead’s classic status.

With a production run from 1980-1984, the first-year model, with the flame paint job (aka the fireball), is the most collectible. It can fetch anything from $10-$15K.

Wide Glides made between ’81-’84 drop slightly in price but still hover around $6-$10K depending on condition. That is, of course, if you can find one. Best estimates suggest that Harley’s production run came in at just 1000 units per year. As the Wide Glide look was a popular upgrade, you have to know what you’re doing not to end up with a look-a-like.

Can You Daily Ride a Shovelhead?

Now to the $64,000 question, is the Harley-Davidson FXWG Shovelhead an everyday rideable classic? No, it isn’t. My ’82, imported to the UK from Texas, brought with it a nightmare of mystery illnesses. One day it would run like a Swiss watch, and the next, it would lump, cough, spit, overheat, or plain refuse to start. No two days were the same.

Shovelhead ownership, though, is one of the all-time great love-hate relationships. Warmed up and with the beat of the idling engine sounding like a slowly cantering horse, the Shovel resonates with the soul. On a bad day, I needed restraining from engaging in a little hammer therapy.

The original twin disc front brakes were more show than go. The rear brake was marginally better due to the amount of leverage you could exert. Unfortunately, changing gear, like changing direction, is a ponderous affair, and the suspension bangs and clunks over the slightest bump.

Let’s not forget the vibration, too. If you think blurred vision and chattering teeth are urban myths, don’t. If all this sounds like I’m a Shovelhead Wide Glide hater, forget it. One of my proudest motorcycling moments was winning Best in Show at an American custom car show.

On the over-enthusiastic victory ride home, I lost a rear footrest, number plate, and the horn bracket snapped. All this summed up my Wide Glide to perfection.

Historic and Enjoyable

Shovelhead Wide Glide ownership is an acquired taste and requires deep pockets or an expansive tool kit. Although not a motorcycle for everyday riding, the model is still a genuine piece of Harley history. As such, it’s a motorcycle you can enjoy best on those days when you’ve got nowhere to be and all day to get there.

If living with an early ’80 FXWG Shovelhead sounds a bit too immersive, why not look at the model that put it out to grass. Consider that the 1984 Evolution Softail’s crankcases, front and back wheels, forks and triple clamps, front and rear fenders, and gas tank were all donated by the FXWG. But hey, that’s another story.

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