Sir William Wright, who has died aged 94, was a leader of Northern Irish industry who co-founded with his father Wrightbus, a pioneering bus manufacturer whose product range included the modern version of London’s Routemaster double-decker, known as the ‘Boris Bus’. He was also a prominent trade unionist and devoted Protestant churchman.
Employing more than 1,000 workers at its factory in Ballymena, Co Antrim – where prototype buses became a frequent sight on local streets – Wrightbus created a “low-bus” (stepless) design in 1992 and produced its first electric vehicle in 1999; in 2015 it launched the development of the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered biplane.
In 2009, Wrightbus won a design competition against five other manufacturers to produce a new Routemaster for London, commissioned by Boris Johnson as Mayor to replace the popular 1954 AEC Routemaster. Wrightbus’ curved 87-seat hybrid-powered vehicle was put into service on the Route 38 (from Clapton Pond to Victoria) in 2012, and 1,000 were ordered before Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan halted procurement in 2016.
William Thompson Wright was born in Ballymena on 18 September 1927, to Robert and Mary Wright; he had two sisters, one of whom died at birth.
His childhood was plagued by asthma, exacerbated by a spring mattress to which he was later found to be allergic: He struggled to breathe and did not participate in sports, but read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. After the allergy was discovered and corrected, he was able to play soccer for a local team.
In 1946, after initially building a tin shed together in their garden, he and his father founded Robert Wright & Son Coachbuilders. Their products were converted lorries, mobile food trucks, tippers and refrigerated trailers – and from 1950 a fleet of buses for the Tyrone County Board of Education.
In the 1970s, William led the firm into the production of aluminum-framed bus bodies: a wide range followed, including Greater Manchester ‘superbuses’, luxury buses and, in the early 2000s, articulated ‘bendy’ buses.
Wright himself was, in the words of his friend Ian Paisley (Jnr) MP, “one of the last true captains of industry … a gigantic character, a godly man of faith, a true Ulsterman”. A member of the Orange Order for 77 years, he was elected as an Ulster Unionist councilor for Ballymena in 1981 – attracting death threats from the IRA – and again in 1993 and 1997. He later served as an independent unionist councilor and was the first business leader of Northern Ireland is pro-Brexit, telling a local newspaper in March 2016: “I’m all for getting out.”
Wright went to church twice on Sundays, and prayed with his wife every night. On the Lord’s Day he neither worked nor watched television nor let others work in the Wrightbus factory.
In 2019, Wrightbus fell into administration, having accumulated around £60 million in debt; it emerged that Sir William’s son Jeff, who had succeeded as owner, had donated more than £15 million from the company’s funds to the development of Ballymena’s Green Pastures “megachurch”, of which he was pastor.
The business was bought out of administration by Jo Bamford – son of JCB chairman Lord Bamford – who committed it to further development of hydrogen-powered buses and praised Wright’s “relentless dedication”. Workers from the factory formed a guard of honor for his funeral at Green Pastures.
William Wright was appointed OBE in 2001, raised to CBE in 2011 and knighted in 2018. He is survived by his wife Ruby – whom he married in 1957, after meeting her at a town hall dance – and by their son and two daughters .
Sir William Wright, born 18 September 1927, died 24 July 2022