Harley-Davidson Engine Sound Comparison From 1903-2020

If you’re a dyed in the wool Harley Davidson fan, you would probably argue that all of the Motor Co’s engines produce a unique and instantly recognizable exhaust note.

Admittedly, the Knucklehead sounded cool and the Panhead was definitely getting there, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the Harley-Davidson engine sound really became a showstopper. But don’t take my word for it; check out this brilliant video and choose your favorite.

Harley-Davidson Engine Sound key points in the Video

0:06 = Single Cylinder (1903 F-Head)
0:21 = V-Twin (1909)
0:37 = F-Head (1911-1929)
0:52 = Flathead (1929-1973)
1:05 = Knucklehead (1936-1947)
1:21 = Panhead (1948-1965)
1:38 = Shovelhead (1966-1984)
1:53 = Evolution (1984-1999)
2:08 = Twin Cam (1999-2017)
2:29 = Milwaukee-Eight (2017- )
2:53 = Livewire (R.I.P)

Anyway, back to ’66, the bottom half of the Shovelhead was still a Pan. It was the addition of the modified alloy Sportster heads and tweaks to the valve gear and carb that made all the difference though.

These changes allowed the engine to create what is considered to be the most distinctive exhaust note in the world.

The Evo picked up the banner in ‘84 and ran with it, and even though the new engine was light years ahead of the Shovel, it still had that cantering horse rhythm.

The Twin Cam and Milwaukee Eight undoubtedly retain that distinct V sound. Unfortunately, with emission laws requiring catalytic converters and electronic injection, the lurching thump of its forebears is a thing of the past.

The Great Potato Debate

By the mid-’90’s, America was awash with imported look-alike cruisers. When H-D decided Japanese manufacturers were trying to tap into the heritage of their sound too, enough was enough. In October 1994, H-D applied to trademark “potato potato potato!”

After five years of being tied up in court, the only noise Harley had secured was the sound of lawyers counting their fees, and so called it a day.

‘Our customers know the sound can’t be imitated anyway,’ said Joanne Bischmann, H-D’s VP of marketing at the time. Which is precisely what a nation of Harley owners would have told her five years ago completely free of charge.

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