An ultra-rare vehicle that evokes memories of family and friends for the owner earned the prestigious Food Lion AutoFair Best of Show Award. The award was presented to Phil Heitman, from Durham, N.C., for his 1966 American Motors Corp. Marlin on Sunday afternoon as the four-day automotive extravaganza concluded at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Heitman’s family owned an AMC Marlin in the 1960s and when his mother passed away, the vehicle became his. Heitman drove the car back and forth to high school every day and eventually sold it, a move he later regretted.

“In retrospect I definitely should have kept it,” Heitman said.

In 2001 Heitman embarked on a quest to find a four-speed Marlin, just like the vehicle his family had owned. He used some newer technology to track down the classic.

“I found a four speed using eBay Motors,” he said. “It had to be a four speed, like my family’s car. There was one in California and I had it shipped here to North Carolina.”

It took Heitman more than five years to restore the Marlin to its original condition.

“The car is so rare it wasn’t like I could just go to vendors and get out my credit card and buy parts,” he said. “I got nothing off the shelf for this restoration. I had to track down parts, then completely tear the car apart and put it back together, rechroming and repolishing everything.”

NASCAR television personality, automotive aficionado and Food Lion AutoFair Ambassador Mike Joy, who emceed the Food Lion AutoFair awards ceremony Sunday and selected the AMC Marlin as Best of Show, pointed to Heitman’s attention to detail in the restoration as the reason the car took home the top award.

“The Marlin is a very rare vehicle and he faithfully restored the car as new,” Joy said of Heitman’s efforts. “It was such a tough decision to select the Best of Show with so many great cars at the Food Lion AutoFair.”

“It’s quite an honor to win Best of Show at the AutoFair, I’m just so surprised,” said Heitman.

For winning Best in Show, Heitman was given a silver cup trophy.

The First Runner-Up Award at the Food Lion AutoFair was a 1966 Chevrolet II Super Sport owned by David Earnhardt, of Kannapolis, N.C., and the Second Runner-Up Award was given to Don Fontaine, of Concord, N.C., for his 1965 Dodge Coronet 500.

The specialty award winners were: Jim Norris, of Concord, who took home the Bob Laidlein Award (Most Original) with his 1971 Ford Thunderbird; Robert Cayton of Greensboro, N.C., winner of the Cabarrus Cup Award (Most Creative) for his 1930 Ford Model A Truck; Concord resident Vickie Moore, winner of the Lion Cup Award (Best Paint) for her 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1; Rob Jackson of Shelby, N.C., winner of Best Restoration by Owner for his 1957 Chrysler 300C; and Tim Lancaster of Eden, N.C., who captured the Mecklenburg Strelitz Award (Ladies’ Choice) for his 1970 Pontiac GTO.

For a full photo gallery with each award-winning car, click here.

Each of the 54 car clubs participating in the Food Lion AutoFair was judged individually, with a Best of Show picked for each club.

The spring 2012 Food Lion AutoFair takes place April 12-15 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For details, contact the Charlotte Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.