Some like it hot
Staying true to a custom philosophy
Houston, Texas, July 17–25—The American motorcycle scene is in quite a state of flux as of late, with manufacturers scrambling to hone onto a shifting and shrinking customer base. While some attempt to cater to women riders, others are banking on the popularity of baggers. Those producing bobbers hope to fill the niche for buyers with limited funds while others are reviving venerable marques. But then there are those manufacturers who refuse to chase a buck down whatever alley the winds of a sour economy may be blowing. Instead they stick to a design regimen that has worked in the past and one they are firmly convinced will carry them through these lackluster economic times. And while others chastise them for refusing to adjust to a changing market, undaunted, they continue to build and sell uncompromising machines that fit their own personal taste and epitomize what they feel is the essence of a custom motorcycle.
Jeff Nicklus is the founder, CEO and head engineer for Desperado Motorcycles. As a former F-4 Phantom driver (pilot), he was ingrained with a philosophy embracing fluid lines and aerodynamic design. With such a background it’s no surprise a similar ideology would factor into the styling of the company’s product line. As Jeff states, “Flat black and faucet knobs have a place in the motorcycle industry—just not inside the doors of Desperado.” And that viewpoint is never more apparent than in the 2011 Smuggler— a Ferrari in a world of rat rods.
While the name Smuggler suggests a clandestine figure operating under a cover of secretiveness, this bike is anything but covert or reserved. In a refreshing change from some of the rubber-mount luxo-cruisers I’ve recently ridden, the Smuggler draws me back to my roots by offering a lanky, rawboned machine complete with dragbars, minimalist seating and massive horsepower, while retaining an elegant appearance. And it presents a riding stance that forces one to assume that classic crescent-pretzel spinal arc, giving the impression of excessive speed even while sitting curbside. Beautifully executed but poorly named, the Desperado Smuggler is bold and brazen, a Top Gun, American Bad Ass (apologizes to Kid Rock). And as such, in the wrong hands this bike can also become a major cop magnet, as this test pilot was quick to discover.
All Desperado frames are proprietary pieces, manufactured from DOM steel tubing and heat treated after fabrication to alleviate residual stress from the welding process. The Smuggler features a 5″ top tube stretch along with a 2″ extension in the frame’s graceful single-leg downtube, culminating in 47 degrees of total rake. The swingarm is a cantilever system with dual hidden shocks tucked up under the transmission. Front and rear wheels are the “Posse” model by Desperado with a 250/40 in the rear and a skinny 90/90 21″ tire cutting through the morning mist. Although absolutely stunning, the 6″ over stock inverted front end is not a standard Desperado item but, along with the fork stabilizer, was an upgrade from Midwest Motorcycle Supply. (Desperado manufactures all their conventional hydraulic front ends including the triple clamps, with the fork tubes being supplied by the legendary Forking by Frank.)
The “discreet” Smuggler that I was allowed to torture also had a massive motor upgrade. While the standard version comes equipped with a 120″ Ultima power plant, this particular bike was sporting a polished 140. And after my initial ride and following my review of the dyno readouts, I can attest to the potent power this jet fighter is able to relay to the asphalt through a Desperado close-ratio 6-speed tranny and shrouded belt drive system. (Engine upgrades of 127″ and 131″ are also available.) But no matter what your personal cubic-inch selection may be, Desperado tweaks every motor, individually balancing and blueprinting each one prior to assembly—no crate motors here. A Mikuni 45mm carb along with manual compression releases (for simplicity and reliability) round out the performance package.
I picked up this rocket on a Saturday morning at the Desperado compound that’s located about 40 miles north of the Texas Thunder Press office. After the initial shakedown inspection by Nicklus, I blasted off, heading south. I had been warned that the big-inch motor would put off a lot of heat and that, when combined with the 2-into-1 header setup that dumps the exhaust through a final 3″ diameter pipe, things might get a little “crispy” if caught at long-light intersections. Crispy ain’t the word for it. The pipes are covered in asbestos wrap and the final collector hangs out just far enough on the right-hand side for me to acquire a new road name, Kevlar Nutsak. This is not the machine to be straddling for extended periods of time on Main Street in Daytona or Lazelle in Sturgis.
A beast this long and lanky, featuring such an exaggerated rake, likes going in straight lines. The best way to handle sweepers is to keep the power on and not shut down the throttle when entering a curve. Powering through corners helps reduce rear-wheel steering and after a short learning curve I was soon wrangling the Smuggler through the local burgs, catching everyone’s attention during the process—everyone’s. The engine is solid mounted and, when punched, delivers instant power… along with a fair share of vibration. But that’s to be expected when you’re dialing up 140 cubic inches that’s spitting out an equal number of ponies. And while the Desperado hydraulic clutch is not the lightest to the touch, it conveys a smooth release at all times along with a positive power transition—a must with this much horsepower on tap. The T-type dragbars add to the vibration due to their 8″ height, but not to the point of annoyance.
As is common to any bike sporting a rear tire this wide, the 18″ 250mm is susceptible to tar snakes and road anomalies, but not to any severe extent. The rear wheel is a deep-dish housing with a four-piston caliper located inboard of the 48-tooth sprocket that leaves the right side of the housing clean and uncluttered. The rear master cylinder is an Accutronix item while both the shifter and brake forward controls are products off the Desperado shelves. And while the seat is not really uncomfortable, there’s no way I can honestly say it is truly comfortable. Pit stops at the 100-mile mark are no problem and you’re going to want to stop that often anyway so everyone can gather around, gawk and ask questions.
I pulled up to the intersection in the left-hand lane to make a turn into the gas station to refuel. To my right were three riders on various models of bikes waiting to pull out. They followed me into the convenience store and parked at the front door. None went inside but slowly approached the Smuggler instead. “Guess you know we just hadda swing in and check out your bike, right?” stated the eldest. I nodded approval and started fielding questions concerning make and model, engine displacement, ease of handling and cost. Thinking ahead when I first picked up the bike, I had Nicklus give me a handful of his company business cards, expecting many such encounters. I handed them out to the three riders after our Q&A session, wished them well and rode off with that grin that is impossible to control when straddling such an exquisitely executed machine.
This particular version of the Smuggler came equipped with a finish upgrade called the Carbon Fiber Paint Package. The 4.4 gallon gas tank, 4-1/2 quart oil tank and both fenders are steel but carry the appearance of carbon fiber construction. A voodoo type of carbon fiber film is applied to the pieces over a base of black epoxy primer. Afterwards, the sheet metal is inspected to make certain the “wrap” gives the desired look (if not, you simply remove it and reapply another section of film). After final approval, a catalyst hardener is misted onto the surface, followed by graphics and topped with ample amounts of clear. Two of my favorite items on the “Carbon Bike” were the gas tank and the air cleaner cover. The tank was perfectly sized and seemed to just hover above the motor while the flush pop-up cap blended in flawlessly with the paint scheme. The filter cover is tipped forward just slightly and features four intake ports, bearing a definite aircraft effect. And, according to the officer, it looked like I was actually taxiing for takeoff.
I was in the country, chasing a series of curves and testing the ass-pucker qualities of the Smuggler. And to be honest, I really wasn’t paying that much attention to the handlebar-mounted instrument package. But even though I was successfully ignoring the bike’s digital readout, I couldn’t disregard the red ’n’ blinkies in the rearview mirror. Uh-oh. Now this wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled over while test riding a bike. Not even the first time I’d been pulled over while reaching for triple digits on the speedo. But… it was the first time I’d been pulled over by a state trooper. Uh-oh. Speeding, no registration (dealer’s tag), no inspection sticker, no excuse—until he saw the bike. He was impressed. Impressed enough to slow down and listen to my explanation, to take into consideration I was writing a review for a national magazine and to recognize the fact that, although I looked like a troublemaker, I was old enough to be his dad. I escaped with only a severe scolding and slap on the wrist. The officer left with a Desperado business card in his shirt pocket, mumbling something about checking out their website.
The 2011 Desperado Smuggler lists for $32,950. The Carbon Fiber Paint Package, 140″ polished motor and inverted fork with brace brings the total package as tested to $39,738. The street-legal version features different mirrors, DOT-mandated turn signals and a chain guard. The last time I saw this particular Carbon Bike was in Lead, South Dakota, during the Sturgis Rally, when Jeff had it on display. And it would also be the last time, since he sold it during the rally. And the guy who bought it… he ordered another one, a second, different model a month later. Seems like sticking with what you know still works.