In modern automotive internal combustion engines, the connecting rods are most usually made of steel for production engines, but can be made of T6-2024 and T651-7075 aluminum alloys (for lightness and the ability to absorb high impact at the cost of durability) or titanium (for a combination of lightness with strength, at higher cost) for high performance engines, or of cast iron for applications such as motor scooters. They are not rigidly fixed at either end, so that the angle between the connecting rod and the piston can change as the rod moves up and down and rotates around the crankshaft. Connecting rods, especially in racing engines, may be called “billet” rods, if they are machined out of a solid billet of metal, and not being cast.
The small end attaches to the piston pin, gudgeon pin or wrist pin, which is now most often press fit into the connecting rod but can swivel in the piston, a “floating wrist pin” design. The big end connects to the bearing journal on the crank throw, in most engines running on replaceable bearing shells accessible via the connecting rod bolts which hold the bearing “cap” onto the big end.
Typically there is a pinhole bored through the bearing and the big end of the connecting rod so that pressurized lubricating motor oil squirts out onto the thrust side of the cylinder wall to lubricate the travel of the pistons and piston rings. Most small two-stroke engines and some single cylinder four-stroke engines avoid the need for a pumped lubrication system by using a rolling-element bearing instead, however this requires the crankshaft to be pressed apart and then back together to replace a connecting rod.
The connecting rod is under tremendous stress from the reciprocating load represented by the piston, actually stretching and being compressed with every rotation, and the load increases to the square of the engine speed increase. Failure of a connecting rod, usually called “throwing a rod” is one of the most common causes of catastrophic engine failure in cars, often putting the broken rod through the side of the crankcase and thereby rendering the engine irreparable; it can result from fatigue near a physical defect in the rod, lubrication failure in a bearing due to faulty maintenance, or from failure of the rod bolts from a defect, improper tightening. Re-use of rod bolts is a common practice as long as the bolts meet manufacturer specifications. Despite their frequent occurrence on televised competitive automobile events, such failures are quite rare on production cars during normal daily driving. This is because production auto parts have a larger reason of safety, and often more systematic quality control.
When building a high performance engine, great attention is paid to the connecting rods, eliminating stress risers by such techniques as grinding the edges of the rod to a smooth radius, shot peening to induce compressive surface stresses (to prevent crack initiation), balancing all connecting rod/piston assemblies to the same weight and Magnafluxing to show otherwise invisible small cracks which would cause the rod to fail under stress. In addition, great care is taken to torque the connecting rod bolts to the exact value specified; often these bolts must be replaced and not reused. The big end of the rod is fabricated as a unit and cut or cracked in two to set up precision fit around the big end bearing shell. Therefore, the big end “caps” are not interchangeable between connecting rods, and when rebuilding an engine, care must be taken to make sure that the caps of the different connecting rods are not mixed up. Both the connecting rod and its bearing cap are usually embossed with the corresponding position number in the engine block.
Recent engines such as the Ford 4.6 liter engine and the Chrysler 2.0 liter engine, have connecting rods made using powder metallurgy, which allows more precise control of size and weight with less machining and less excess mass to be machined off for balancing. The cap is then separated from the rod by a fracturing process, which results in an uneven mating surface due to the grain of the powdered metal. This ensures that upon reassembly, the cap will be perfectly positioned with respect to the rod, compared to the minor misalignment which can occur if the mating surfaces are both flat.
A major source of engine wear is the sideways force exerted on the piston through the connecting rod by the crankshaft, which typically wears the cylinder into an oval cross-section and not circular, making it impossible for piston rings to correctly seal against the cylinder walls. Geometrically, it can be seen that longer connecting rods will cut the amount of this sideways force, and therefore lead to longer engine life. However, for a given engine block, the sum of the length of the connecting rod plus the piston stroke is a fixed number, determined by the fixed distance between the crankshaft axis and the top of the cylinder block where the cylinder head fastens; thus, for a given cylinder block longer stroke, giving greater engine displacement and power, requires a shorter connecting rod (or a piston with smaller compression height), resulting in accelerated cylinder wear.