I favor the mid 60’s - very early 70’s for American automotive design. But being the generation that I am, still got the emotional attachment with the 90’s - for certain German & Japanese contributions (Porsche line-up, Rx-7, M3, NSX, etc)…
Initial thoughts: As far as designers go, I think they had the most control in the '20/'30s coach building days and the 2000’s. However, I don’t think that designer-control means the best designs. It’s notable that Jag’s classics (XK120, XKE, MKIV) were all ‘designed’ by mechanics and panel beaters working with the president of the company.
I think the high point, in any company, is when you have design, marketing and engineering pushing and pulling each other to new levels. An example might be Cadillac. The current CTS is one of my favorite designs and I see evidence of that whole team synergy combining there.
It is true what Ray says about synergy in the strenght of multi departements. I’d like to add though, that great design
always flourishes in economic boom times that come after a shaky period. The 1960ies have too much for
them to count: Baby boom, mini skirt, S€X-lib., color TV, mass tourism, etc, etc.
The 1930ies must have been simular after the great depression in many ways, but the difference is, that the
Automotive Industrie was not fully blossomed back then. So many designs were fired by a spirit of exploration
but the solutions came out quirky. On the other hand the quality of hand made details found in vintage Art Deco
objects is more than a cut above the later pop art objects. In the 1960ies quality was not accounted for as mass consumerism made its way.
The Duesenberg SJ Models are closely based on the Duesenberg J-Series,
which was presented mere days before the crash in 1929. Duesenberg crawled through the crisis just so.
The Cord 810 on the other hand was designed in 1935, but not thoroughly engineered.
You stated that the booms come after the crisis, I was saying that, in the case of the depression, the boom was during the crisis. In fact, it was across the design world (Loewy, Teague, Bel Geddes were all starting in the depression). It’s been argued that during economic crisis, business is more open to new methods, like design.
Also, I interpreted the question as a design only question. Engineering wise, today’s cars are clearly superior.
In the US at least I would say there is a stigma around small cars - not safe, uncomfortable, etc. Even our “Small” cars like the Honda Fit or Ford Fiesta are still pretty damn big.
All the bloat comes from a combination of that stigma, years of safety regulations (like recent pedestrian impact regulations which dictate certain impact zones on the front end of a vehicle which usually translates to more height up front), lots of airbags and other equipment, bigger engines, and fat Americans who need big seats for their 7 children.
There are still plenty of small B and K cars out there that can do all that in a much tighter package, but they never get sold stateside. Asia is another story.
I think every era has it’s highlights and low lights. I can think of amazing and horrible cars from all of those eras… as the years pass, the horrible (or even worse mediocre forgettable) tend to be forgotten. I used to think the 80’s where horrible, Chrysler K cars, every GM car looking the same, bit now looking back at the Giugiaro influenced Japanese cars of the era, I see the jems.