Pit-stop down memorabilia lane

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The Independent Online
FANCY a crown-wheel-and-pinion desk lamp? Feel that your life is incomplete without a perforated- carbon-fibre-brake-disc clock? Covet a Grand-Prix-rear-tyre-based chess set? Waste no time: telephone Grand Prix Topgear and make an appointment to visit their "Aladdin's Cave" of motor racing memorabilia.

This is where grand prix cars come to die. Down a bumpy side-street in a quiet Hertfordshire village, a chequered flag flew outside a discreet doorway. Inside, in a sort of garage-cum-showroom-cum-boutique, was what at first looked like the aftermath of some catastrophic Sunday afternoon accident: wheels, wings, nose cones, exhaust pipes, even - cripes - ghostly overalls were scattered everywhere. "Hello," said a dapper middle-aged chap, stepping from behind a rack of lurid mechanics' shirts. "Was there anything in particular?"

This was Chris Grint, one of Britain's oddest shopkeepers. He founded Grand Prix Topgear five years ago when he realised that there was an insatiable demand, in Britain but especially overseas, for bits of recently used racing car. Carefully cultivating sources in the hypersensitive world of Formula One, he has established lines of supply that keep his little warehouse constantly stocked with instantly recognisable items.

There was a tyre that was on Gerhard Berger's Ferrari at Imola a month ago, the scrutineers' chalk marks still fresh; in the corner stood a rear wing from last year's Tyrrell; on the floor, in pride of place, the shark- shaped nose cone of Michael Schumacher's championship-winning Benetton. "Opening the doors in Formula One is very hard," Chris admitted. "Their business is racing cars and winning races. But we can help them clear some space, and raise some money - for donations to charity and such like."

Some of the items Chris converts to mundane purposes: "hundreds" of tyres and wheels pass through his hands en route to new careers as coffee tables, clocks and game-boards. But other parts - fins and wings and ducts and lumps of engine - can have no subsequent practical function and are sold on as trophies, to be hung on walls in much the same way that the hunters of the past stuffed and mounted tigers' heads.

"The larger items are popular with theme pubs and bars," Chris explained. "We can even do half a an entire car for them." Come again? "We slice a car down the middle lengthwise, and they stick it on the wall. It looks quite spectacular." How much for half a grand prix car, then? "pounds 11,000." And then, of course, Chris can sell the other half to someone else. Prices are keen at the top end of the market: an engine cover is pounds 650, a sidepod (complete with stickers) is pounds 350. Bits of last year's Lotus cars command premium prices: not because the cars were any good (they weren't) but because the once-great team has all but disappeared from Formula One. Chris hopes punters will snap up these chunks of history.

If the interest in bits of Lotus verges on the morbid, the market in anything Senna-related is certainly so. Stamps, towels, photographs, badges, figurines, sweatshirts "with tyre print created by actually inking the champion's Monaco rear tyre from the 1993 race", all these occupy the pounds 5-pounds 100 zone. But other, more personal mementoes of the great Brazilian are more expensive. A helmet actually worn by him, for example, costs pounds 15,000. "Not the kind of thing we would put on display," Chris says. But he can find such items, for special clients.

Death enhances market value: it's been happening in art for centuries, but it's a shame that it happens in sport as well. We would rather dwell on the memorabilia connected with the living. On Schumacher's nose-cone, for instance, which will fetch pounds 1,900 ("Very quickly," says Chris, "and almost certainly from one of his countrymen"). This may seem steep, but then according to Chris's catalogue, this is "possibly the most sought- after body part on offer anywhere". So before you drift off into reveries concerning body-part purchase, consider the joy that Michael's nose will shortly be bringing to a sad man, somewhere in Germany.

FEELINGS were running high at the First Division play-off game between the Wanderers of Bolton and Wolverhampton last week, as a radio commentator from the West Midlands discovered when he ventured the opinion that Bolton's John McGinlay was lucky to stay on the pitch after swinging a punch.

So outraged was a Bolton sponsor sitting directly behind him that he grabbed the reporter's microphone and refused to give it back. The stewards sorted things out: they threatened to eject the radio chap for provoking the locals.

My colleague Dave Hadfield, who witnessed this unpleasantness from the safety of the print media section, recalls another incident last season at Carlisle, where an impassioned United fan was so inflamed by a journalist telephoning his "Brave Carlisle went out of the Cup . . ." intro before the match was over that he threw the hack's notebook out of the stand.

THIS week's Almanack award for commercial enterprise goes to the football team at Chatham Grammar School for Girls, who have obtained sponsorship to die for: from their local funeral director, John Weir of Rainham.