Don Pilkenton, of Don’s Hot Rods fame, was named Builder of the Year for the 2012 Detroit Autorama—an honor well deserved. Though there have been many names associated with the Detroit Autorama over the years, none have a history that includes winning the Don Ridler Memorial Award for the owners of three different hot rods.

Now 60 years old, Don had hot rods on his mind back when he was a union meat cutter in the late ’70s. He started working for Butch’s Rod Shop in the ’80s and was building cars in his garage behind his house in his spare time, but Brookville Roadsters’ Ray Gallahon called him in 1984 to help his business get off the ground and build some frame fixtures and assemble Model A bodies as well as some turnkey cars.

By 1988 he’d began building cars for George Poteet and Billet Specialties’ Glenn Grozich and, by 1989, was ready to open his own shop, Don’s Hot Rods, in Germantown, Ohio. From there not only a long line of award-winning cars debuted, but so did a special line of hot rod parts designed and fabricated for the home rod builder.

By the ’90s Don’s career was white hot and, as a builder, helped the owners of several cars win both the Don Ridler Memorial Award (1993, 1996, 1999) as well as a couple of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster awards (1997, 2000).

But early into the first decade of the new millennium Don had some major health issues that not only caused him to dial back his involvement in building cars, but he needed to sell his parts business, too. Steve Legens, from Martin, Tennessee, had already made a name for himself building high-quality cars (with a couple of Detroit Great 8 finalists and a Goodguys Street Rod of the Year award under his belt), and Don agreed to sell his business to Legens.

Doing better in the health department, Don opened a small shop in Carlisle, Ohio, in 2004 to do a few cars for customers (including former Ridler winner Dave Emery whose coupe received a Pirelli Great 8 nod at this year’s Autorama) but he doesn’t see himself expanding the way he did years previous. He knows he’s fortunate for the career he’s had, and he says he’s lucky to have the customers he’s worked for, adding he’s spent most of his life doing what he loves: building hot rods.