Depending on your criteria, it could be anything from the dawn of automotive production to today.
Scanning around the internet for content ideas, we stumbled upon this print at for the full line of 1966 Chevrolet Coupes:
From big to small, Chevrolet offered an attractive, capable, interesting car. If you expanded that to all of General Motors, you had a smorgasbord of great automobiles, from the entry level Tempest at Pontiac:
Through the sporty, full-size Wildcat and Skylark coupes at Buick:
…to an incredible 38 different trim levels of Oldsmobile:
…to the full luxury of Cadillac’s Fleetwood line:
And that’s just General Motors. There was hardly an ugly car to be had in 1966, from any manufacturer, from any corner of the planet. Some were more “interesting” than others (see: Citroen) but they were all completely unique, and unmistakable on the road. Compare that to the mid-1990s, and with few exceptions, sedans featured such similar styling it was hard to find your car in the parking lot among a sea of soap-shaped vehicles, all in various shades of gray.
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But we’re really only taking aesthetics into consideration. Safety in 1966 was deplorable, to the point that consumer advocates like Ralph Nader forced the industry’s hand, thanks to the introduction of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in 1968.
In that era, those standards included no-brainer safety equipment like collapsible steering columns, padded dashboards and lap belts, but it was a start.
Manufacturers make safety advances every passing year, but unfortunately, tens of thousands of people still die on American highways every year. If you’re using passenger highway deaths per miles traveled as your ultimate measure, the lowest death rate America has experienced since 1975 was 2014, with a rate of 6.6 deaths per 100,000 miles traveled. That number jumped significantly to 7.0 in 2015, despite widespread adoption of new semi-autonomous technologies, but it has still dropped by more than half since the dangerous days of 1978, when 15.7 people were killed per 100,000 miles traveled.
Safety doesn’t tell the entire story, either. Maybe it’s technology.
Stick your head inside a car from the 1960s, and the technology from any manufacturer — from economy cars to luxury cars — is almost exactly the same. The lowly economy sedan will have manual windows and maybe an AM radio, but the best the full luxury car can offer is power windows and an AM/FM radio, along with things like power operated seats that even a bare-bones economy car might have today.
Take a look at the standard features list of the 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage, the cheapest car available from a major manufacturer in the United States: heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, one-touch power windows, external temperature display, trip computer, 140-watt, four-speaker stereo, USB connection. Any one of those items would’ve been revolutionary on a luxury car from the 1960s.
Maybe performance is key. Many consider 1970 the zenith for performance, at a time when manufacturers ignored their own performance caps, unleashing 455-cu.in. weekend racers on an unsuspecting public. But take a look at some of the fastest quarter mile times in 1970: Motor Trend put a 1960 Buick Skylark GS with a 360hp 455-cu.in. V-8 through the traps in 13.38 seconds, at 105 mph. Car Craft ran a 1970 Dodge Challenger SE with a 425hp, 426-cu.in. Hemi in 13. 10 at 107.12mph.
That sure was fast. For 1970. In 2012, a Hyundai Genesis s 3.8 R-Spec — not exactly what anyone would consider “fast” — could muster a 13.3 second quarter mile. It’s probably not fair to compare a 1970 Buick GS with an MSRP of $4,880 to a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat at $68,000, even adjusting for inflation. But that investment will get you to a quarter mile at least a full second before the Buick GS, on the tires it left the factory with. A set of drag radials drives that time down by two seconds.
From the very birth of the automotive industry to the present day, there have been periods that outpaced all others. Interested in alternative fuels? The 1920s had gasoline, electricity and steam. Like motorcycles? The 1970s offered more brands, and greater varieties of two-wheelers than at any point in history. Want a two-door SUV? 1965 to 1985 was the sweet spot.
What’s your very favorite year in automotive history, and what makes it so meaningful to you?