1. Perspective; the ability to understand and draw in perspective is vital in car design. Many amateurs start off drawing three-dimensional objects without perspective. This can sometimes work for product design but is not acceptable on cars. Cars are large objects which are viewed close-up, which means perspective is very important. In fact it is better to exaggerate perspective than have none at all. To get a feel for it, experiment with wide-angle viewpoints and distorted perspective. Then move back to something more normal and easy to digest.
Be aware that of your two vanishing points, at least one will usually be a long way from the car. If you are finding perspective lines difficult to imagine, try covering your desk with paper and use a point that is way off the page that you can draw lines to.
Eventually you will be able to guess where your lines should go. Trace real cars as a reference. There is no substitute for practicing and studying how real cars behave with perspective.
2. Symmetry; make sure your car has a definite centre and that the design is balanced equally either side of it. The combination of this and perspective takes some practice so be patient. You must respect the form and plan-shape of the car and understand when features will not be visible. Cars are not boxes and can't be constructed as easily or as logically.
Flip the page over and check if the design still looks ok. If you are refining a series of under-lays, try flipping the image over each time you begin a new one. This will help you see errors and allow you to correct them before it is too late. If you want to clearly show both headlamps make sure you choose a viewpoint that includes them both from the start. One of the more common mistakes by beginners is to try and show too much of the far headlamp. This creates the impression that the car is distorted and is something to be avoided. It really helps to roughly sketch your design in different views so that you can understand the form you want before progressing to more detailed renderings.
3. Wheels; get your wheels right and you're half-way to producing a pleasing sketch. An otherwise perfect rendering will be ruined with incorrect looking wheel ellipses. It's a difficult thing to get the hang of in the beginning for some people. If this includes you make sure you tackle the problem early on! Using ellipse templates alone will not produce nice wheels; they must be positioned correctly and you can practice this freehand.
Respect your perspective lines and construct your ellipses logically to start with. You will build up a feeling for what works over time and be able to work more freely. Draw the axle lines through the car and then draw lines perpendicular (90 degrees) to these where you want the centres of the wheels to be. Your ellipse should touch the perpendicular line at its narrow ends. Then experiment with how fat or thin the ellipse needs to be to look right. On front wheels you have freedom to make the wheels turn and can adjust you ellipses accordingly - don't attempt this until you can draw them in-line, and be careful not to obstruct your design communication with turned wheels. Remember to tighten the ellipses for the distant wheels to account for perspective.
If you are struggling to work it out just trace over existing cars and examine how you would construct the wheels. Using a combination of correct perspective and symmetry you will be able to get all the wheels in the right position. Almost fill the arches with the wheels when sketching but always include a slight gap. Large wheels usually improve the appearance of cars but if you make them too big your work will look like a cartoon or caricature and won't be taken seriously. Keep the wheel design simple to begin with until you can get the basics right. The reason why you will often hear the recommendation to use real cars or other professional sketches as under-lays is so that you will get a feel for these three vitally important aspects. Get them right and your work will take a leap forward in credibility and communication.
Early in my career I used to work on a large drawing board covered with paper which would subsequently get covered in lines and airbrush ink. I was not afraid to go over the edges of the page I had taped on top which gave a lot of freedom and meant I could always draw accurate construction lines. Do whatever it takes to get the desired result on the page!
Miles Waterhouse is a leading instructor in car design on the web and graduated from Coventry University in 1999 with a BA (hons) in transportation design. He began his career at Pininfarina and has designed for auto companies such as Volvo and Shanghai Automotive.