Custom 1977 Harley-Davidson FLHS

Wrecked and retired, a 1977 Harley-David FLHS thunders back to life
By Margie Siegal
November/December 2005
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Joel Sechrist’s FLHS retains the essential character of the Shovelhead while fixing some design flaws and modernizing various components. The result is not only good at gathering a crowd, but is easy to ride.
Photo by Dana Shirey
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Custom Harley-Davidson FLHS

Year produced: 2005
Claimed power: 65bhp @ 4,000rpm (est.)
Top speed: 120mph (est.)
Engine type: 1,208cc, two-valve, 45-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 332.1kg (738lb) 
Price: Not for sale

In 1977 Joel Sechrist plopped down $4,200 for a new Harley-Davidson FLHS. He liked the bike, he liked to ride and he also liked to party. And the combination exacted its toll.

"You got the word on me — I tried to use it like an International Harvester one day. I was riding on a dirt road, and both me and the bike had a full tank of fuel. The road made a hairpin turn, and I wasn't going to make it, so I went straight into a cornfield," Sechrist says. The result? "Light damage to the motorcycle and heavy damage to my ego."

Later, Sechrist cut back on the partying, but back problems forced him to mothball the bike. Ten years later, after his back healed and he bought a new Harley Road King, he asked his son if he wanted the FLHS for his 21st birthday.

When his son told him he’d rather have a dirt bike, Sechrist decided to fix up his old bike and ride it himself. He took the big V-twin to Ed Hillegass at Keystone Performance Cycle, near York, Pa., and asked him to rebuild it.

Hillegass worked for Harley-Davidson for more than 20 years before shifting to the retail side of the motorcycle world and founding Keystone three years ago. "I specialize in performance and customizing. I take in restorations over the winter — they take twice as long."

Sechrist basically liked his bike as it was — before it was stored in a damp garage for 10 years, that is — but wanted some mild performance upgrades. Hillegass tore the bike down to the crankshaft, replaced the bearings and put in a new crankpin, as well as rods, pistons, valves and valve guides. Most of the parts are available through aftermarket sources, and Hillegass likes Tedd Cycle. "They handle a lot of old stuff. For older bikes like that, they handle stuff that no one else does."

Sorting engines

Since 1936, there have been five versions of Harley-Davidson's air-cooled, overhead-valve, Big Twin engine — all with the familiar, 45-degree V-twin layout. The first, nicknamed the Knucklehead by Harley fans because of the large rocker box castings prominent on the engine’s right side, had iron barrels, heads and rocker covers.

Aluminum heads and larger rocker covers appeared in 1948, after Harley had a chance to switch from military to civilian production, and the new engine became popularly known as the Panhead because of its pan-shaped valve cover.

As the years went by, the Panhead got a telescopic front end, rear shocks, a stronger bottom end and electric starting. And Harley finally started naming its bikes, as well. Since Harley's offerings of the Thirties were only given letter denominations, the original Knucklehead (sport version) was always the EL to the factory. In the late Forties, Harley started naming its bikes in addition to its alpha designations, so the telescopic fork Panhead was officially the Hydra-Glide and the electric start version was officially the Electra-Glide.

In 1966, Harley once again revised the Big Twin's top end and Harley fans once again came up with a nickname: Shovelhead, from the look of the rocker boxes. The Shovelhead era lasted until 1984, when the factory came up with not only a completely new engine, but also the name for it: Evolution. Evolution engines came out of Milwaukee until the end of the 20th century, when they were replaced by the Twin Cam.

Each era's motorcycles are still championed by a group of enthusiasts. While some swear allegiance to Panheads and Knuckleheads, many still like the Shovels they grew up on, and Sechrist is one of them. "It fits me like a pair of old shoes." With its torquey V-twin, Sechrist’s '77 FLHS is an obvious descendant of the 1936 overhead-valve Knucklehead. 

After 1970, the electricity to power the lights and charge the battery was generated by an alternator, but '77 was the last year the spark was still controlled by points and the last year for the 74ci engine. Deciphering the Harley lettering system on Sechrist’s FLHS, F meant a 74ci Big Twin, LH meant the higher compression engine, and S meant a machine without the fairing and other touring bits that by this time came with the FLH.

Shovelheads were not problem-free. The aluminum heads and iron barrels expanded at different rates as the engine temperature rose, and Seventies brakes didn't always stop the bike in time. The engine shared oil with the primary case, and, as a result, clutch pad fibers and grit quickly found their way into the engine, causing excessive wear.

In 1977, Harley was still owned by American Machine and Foundry (AMF), the sporting goods manufacturer, which was trying to justify its considerable investment in motorcycle manufacturing by demanding the H-D plant pump out more bikes than could be built to specifications. Old factory hands remember that anything and everything went out the door, whether it was running right or not.

Fortunately for Sechrist, quality control wasn’t an issue with his bike: Unlike many AMF Harley owners, he doesn't remember ever having to take the bike in for warranty repairs.

Resurrection

To improve on the factory’s work, Hillegass bored the cylinders on Sechrist’s bike to 0.010 oversize, installed a cam that promised to increase performance and replaced the original lifters with parts from Sifton. He also replaced the stock carburetor with an S&S.

"Old carbs have had so much garbage gas run through them that they are too pitted to work properly," Hillegass says. "An S&S carb offers good performance: They’re easy to work on, and they are dependable."

Hillegass opted for a Stampede electronic ignition system, an improvement over the FLHS' original points, which are reliable but inaccurate and have a tendency to wear out.

"It’s a notch up in performance, nothing wears out, and it runs good," Hillegass says.

The early version of the electronic ignition that Harley installed on its big twins beginning in 1978 had plenty of bugs and was known as "The Dreaded Black Box," but 27 years of improvements have resulted in a vastly better system on today’s Harleys.

A few years after Sechrist’s FLHS was built, Harley started moving away from chains and moved toward using primary and final belt drives on its bikes. Belt drive was common on many pioneering motorcycles, but the system went out of fashion around World War I because belts made of materials available at the time (usually leather) slipped under power and stretched when wet. But when belts made of nonslip and nonstretch materials came on the market in the Seventies, the virtues of belt drive — absorption of vibration and elimination of the need for lubricant — became more apparent.

In the case of the Shovelhead, belt primary drive allows engine oil to be isolated from the clutch, which means the engine runs cleaner and doesn't need to be frequently rebuilt, a common experience with the old shared oil system.

"When I was working for the factory," remembers Hillegass, "Harley started putting a belt drive on the Sturgis. We found out that there wasn't nearly as much warranty work on the Sturgis as on other models. We traced the improvement to the belt drive, which allowed the engine oil to stay clean."

The Harley-buying public initially regarded belt drive with suspicion, but once it was proved that belts lasted at least 30,000 miles and often considerably more, people with older motorcycles wanted to install belt drive conversions on their bikes, and aftermarket suppliers started marketing them.

Hillegass used a Belt Drives Limited kit to convert Sechrist’s bike. "It's not a really difficult conversion. It works so sweet, shifts so nice. It eliminates clutch drag."

Sechrist had purchased an aftermarket two-into-one exhaust shortly before he put the bike in storage, and, as Hillegass says, "it stayed half decent and cleaned up okay." The frame was "kind of tweaked" from the cornfield adventure and needed straightening, so Hillegass sent it to a nearby welding shop, which returned it to specs. The forks had been rebuilt after the cornfield incident left the seals leaking, and simply needed polishing.

Finishing touches

The frame still needed painting, so while Hillegass was fitting the belt drive and the electronic ignition, Sechrist was packing up the frame — along with new tanks and bodywork — and hauling it to Shawn Emenheiser's Auto Body near York. "He was just this young guy," Sechrist says. "I told him I liked green and told him to pick out the paint scheme."

The finish reflects Emenheiser’s passions. "I'm big into candy," he says. "I like spraying candy. The dark color is actually black with some white pearl mixed in, which gives it a metallic look, and the light is pure gold metallic. I put five coats of green candy color on top. Gold is getting big again, so I used a lot of gold on this bike. The logo and pinstriping are all gold leaf." Sechrist was more than pleased. "Shawn not only did a beautiful job, but it was all done in just two weeks!"

Sechrist brought the bodywork back to Hillegass, who assembled the Shovelhead with a new wheel — only one original wheel could be salvaged — and a GMA Engineering front disc. "It had more go, so we needed more stopping power." The rear shocks are by Progressive Suspension.

Sechrist is very happy with his reborn Shovelhead. He has ridden it 1,200 miles, often in the company of his friend, Abby, who likes to ride the Road King. That’s a good thing, since Sechrist has been neglecting his new bike in favor of the old FLHS.

As for Sechrist’s son, he’s still riding that dirt bike. "When he saw how nice the Shovel came out, he changed his mind and wanted the bike," Sechrist says. "I told him, forget it." MC


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