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How the Harley fought back from disaster to see off Japanese rivals

Mention Harley-Davidson and thoughts of Hell's Angels and Peter Fonda on his high-handlebar chopper in Easy Rider spring to mind.

But behind all the va-va-voom on two wheels lies a chrome legend. Since the first Harley hit the streets in 1903, the world's most iconic motorbike has seen more drama than Route 66.

Retired Harley executive Clyde Fessler was invited by An Post to address a marketers' breakfast in Fallon & Byrne prepared by Dylan McGrath. Mr Fessler revealed how the firm sold 20,00 bikes during World War One -- and how it almost crashed in the early Eighties. John Travolta also put Harley on the map in Road Hog. The Sixties saw a baby boom and the arrival of Japanese brands. There were 50,000 Harleys sold in 1980 but the bike was renowned for developing leaks. Harley turned to Porsche for a new design. An MBO in 1981 saw major changes.

Ideas were borrowed from Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki, all of which had global distribution and other strings to their bows, like musical instruments.

Harley used amusing ads to create a new image, based on the motorbike's heritage. Fans like chat show host Jay Leno, U2's Larry Mullen and supermodel Marisa Miller helped out. Actor-director George Clooney (pictured) is due to join his friend Bono on a Harley tour of Ireland next year.

Fessler says everyone is a brand. Size needn't matter, be niche. Focus on existing customers and stay passionate -- people forgive mistakes. Harley extended the brand into leisure wear and retail -- and some eight million tee-shirts were sold worldwide last year. Japan is now Harley's top export market.