Choosing The Right Connecting Rods
All About Connecting Rods: What’s Right For You?
By Steve Magnante
Photography: Steve Magnante
One of the most important decisions you’ll make when building your next engine is what rods to use. Whether it’s a slightly warmed-over stock rebuild or an all-out strip-stormer, any time you increase output, the first thing that’s tested is the strength of the connecting rods. Ignoring weight issues, most connecting rod upgrades do not add significantly to power output. What they do is far more important: They allow the ported heads, hotter cam, extra carburetion and other hop-up tactics to complete their mission. Let’s take a look at the battle zone tucked away in your crankcase.
As a piston reciprocates between top dead center (TDC) and bottom dead center (BDC), the rod it’s attached to experiences power loads and inertia loads. Power loads result from the expansion of burning gases during combustion that push down on the head of the piston and cause the crank to turn. Thus, power loads are always compressive in nature. This compressive force is equal to the area of the bore multiplied by the chamber pressure. A cylinder with a bore area of 10 square-inches (3.569-bore diameter) with 800 psi of pressure is subjected to a compressive load of 8,000 pounds. That’s 4 tons that the connecting rod must transmit from the piston to the crankpin, and do it hundreds of times per second at racing speeds.
Inertia loads are both compressive (crush) and tensile (stretch). To better understand them, let’s pull the heads off the engine and forget about the combustion process for a moment. When the rod is pulling the piston down the bore from TDC, the mass of the piston plus any friction caused by ring and skirt drag imparts a tensile load on the rod. Once the piston reaches BDC, the dynamics shift. Suddenly the rod is pushing the mass of the piston as well as the friction load back up the cylinder bore, and a compressive load on the rod results. Then the piston stops and reverses direction to head back down the bore, so the inertia of the piston, once again, tries to pull the rod apart as it changes direction. The size of the load is proportional to the rpm of the engine squared. So if crankshaft speed increases by a factor of three, the inertia load is nine times as great. At 7,000 rpm, a typical production V-8 with standard-weight (read “heavy”) reciprocating parts can generate inertia loads in excess of 2 tons, alternately trying to crash and stretch the poor rods.
OK, now we’ll reinstall the heads, turn the fuel pump and ignition system back on, and restore valve operation. The principles of inertia loading are the same, but conditions become even more severe now that the plugs are firing. Even more tensile loading on the rod comes from the work required to suck air and fuel through the intake tract and into the combustion chamber during the intake stroke. Once the piston reaches BDC, both valves close and the rod must push the piston back up to TDC on the compression stroke. But near the end of the trip toward TDC, the spark plug fires and the compressed fuel mixture begins to expand with opposing force before the piston reaches TDC. This causes a sudden surge of compressive energy that must be resisted until the orientation of the crankpin makes it mechanically possible for the piston and rod to change direction and be pushed back down to BDC during the power stroke. Remember, the size of the loads is proportional to the rpm of the engine squared. But that’s not all.
By far, the greatest test of a rod’s integrity is experienced near the end of the exhaust stroke when the cam is in its overlap phase. In overlap, both valves are open as the piston pushes the last remnants of spent combustion gas out the exhaust port. The intake valve is held open so that fresh intake charge is available the very instant the piston begins generating suction on the downward intake stroke. What makes the overlap period so hazardous is the fact that there is no opposing force applied to the head of the piston (in the form of compressed gas) to cushion the change in direction. This is the load that stretches the rod, ovals the big end, and yanks hardest on the fasteners. If you don’t want your engine to scatter, you’ve got to make sure the connecting rods are always one step ahead of any performance upgrades. But which ones are right for you? Read on for a complete rundown.
We won’t waste much time discussing cast-steel rods because they’re poorly suited to any type of serious performance use. Though the casting process is very inexpensive and results in “near net” shapes that require minimal machining, the lack of a cohesive grain pattern and compromised molecular binding yields brittle parts. Trust us, brittle connecting rods are the last thing you want in a performance engine.
In the ’60s and ’70s, American Motors, Cadillac, Buick, and Pontiac all used cast rods in a wide variety of engine designs. In an effort to improve molecular binding and strength, the molten metal was injected into the mold cavity under high pressure. The resulting castings may have been good enough for use in everything from GTOs to Jeeps, but they have no place in anything other than the most fanatical numbers-matching restoration effort. Worst of all, these cast parts had to be made heavier than comparable forged rods to maintain strength. When you consider that a cast “Arma-Steel” Pontiac 455 rod weighs 31.7 ounces and a stock Chevy 454 forged rod weighs 27.4 ounces, you’ll agree they’re the automotive equivalent of recycled cardboard.
Stock Forged Steel
Original-equipment forged steel rods are the next step up the strength and reliability ladder. Detroit-sourced OE-forged rods begin life as bars of carbon steel that are passed through a rolling die. The rolling process compacts the molecular structure and establishes a uniform, longitudinal grain flow. The bars are then heated to a plasticized state, inserted into a female die, and pressed into the near-final shape while a punch locates and knocks out the big end bore. In doing this, the grain flow at the big end is redirected in a circular pattern, like wood fibers surrounding a knot, and excellent compressive/tensile strength results. Finally the rod is put through a trimmer (that leaves the characteristic thick parting line on the beam), the big end is severed and machined to create the cap, bolt surfaces are spot-faced, then final machining and sizing take place
But there are some drawbacks. When the forging hammer hits the hot bar, heat transfers from the bar to the hammer causing a phenomenon called de-carb (decarburization). Here, trace amounts of the carbon in the steel migrate to the surface resulting in a rough finish full of what metalurgists call “inclusions.” An inclusion is described as anything that interrupts the surface of the metal, or a lack of cleanliness (impurities) in the material. The effect of a surface inclusion can be likened to a nick in a coat hanger. Bend it enough times and the wire will fail, usually right at the nick. The rough surface caused by de-carb affects the surface to a depth of 0.005 to 0.030 inch and is packed with inclusions that are a breeding ground for cracks. The old hot rodder’s trick of grinding and polishing the beams is a valid solution to this problem, though far too labor-intensive to ever be considered by Detroit.
When it comes to inclusions caused by impurities, Detroit’s need to control costs can result in purchases of bulk steel that may (or may not) contain contaminants such as silicon that are not detected during manufacture. Such impurities can interrupt the grain boundaries between the parent molecules and lead to a fracture minutes or years after the rod is first installed in an engine. It’s a matter of luck and what kind of abuse the flawed rod is subjected to.
With very few exceptions, the weakest link in a stock forged rod is the fastener system. The rod bolt is usually the most marginal component. Simply upgrading from stock bolts to quality aftermarket replacements can improve durability by 50 percent. Just be sure to have the big end re-sized to restore concentricity any time the bolts are removed. Stock forged steel rods are an economical choice that should be able to handle one horsepower per cubic inch with quality fasteners, and as much as twice the factory-rated output if the beams are polished.
Aftermarket Forged Steel
Attention to detail and better parent material are the main attractions offered by aftermarket forged steel rods. Though the forging process is much the same, aftermarket rods are typically made from high- carbon SAE steel such as 4340, 4140, and 4330 that is far superior to the low-carbon 51-series steel used in most OE-forged rods. The SAE certification system quantifies the purity of the metal via microscopic examination that computes phosphorous and sulphur content, individual grain size, and other key indicators. By using SAE-certified material, makers (and users) of aftermarket forged rods can rest assured that hidden impurities are not lurking deep within the molecules to compromise strength.
Most aftermarket forged rods benefit from extra care during the critical machining operations. This alone can make or break a connecting rod… literally. The assumption that careful hands have assured closer tolerances and accuracy in the finished product is a valid one. Usually no heavier than stock rods, aftermarket forged rods already come equipped with premium fasteners and should be included in any street and strip engine assembly that will run in excess of 6,500 rpm with stock stroke or 5,500 rpm with increased stroke. The prices keep tumbling, and more applications are available now than ever. There’s no excuse not to step up.
True Billet Steel
True billet steel rods are fairly uncommon in today’s marketplace. Manufacturing begins when rough shapes are flame-cut from a plate of premium quality forged high-carbon steel (usually SAE 4340), then finish-machined to the required final specifications. Similar to cutting a pattern from a sheet of cloth, manufacturers benefit from true billet rods because they do away with the need to make expensive forging dies. These dies can cost between $35,000 and $45,000 a pair, and several may be needed to supply the wide range of shapes and sizes needed to fit all the various applications in the hot rodding galaxy. On the contrary, the dimensions and physical characteristics of a true billet rod are only limited by the size of the plate it will be cut from.
Although the rolling process that creates the plate of parent material gives a uniform, longitudinal grain flow with excellent molecular bonding properties for outstanding strength, there is one minor shortcoming. True billet rods lack the circular grain flow inherent to the big end of forged steel rods. Instead, the longitudinal grain flow continues undisturbed throughout the shoulder and cap sections. This does compromise some strength, but industry experts say it is a minor issue and is responsible for, at worst, a 15-percent reduction in the ultimate hoop strength of the bearing hole.
On the positive side, true billet rods are inherently free from the surface degradations caused by the forging process. A fully machined billet rod has virgin, high-quality material of uniform composition all the way from the core to the external surface. This makes it more resistant to the formation of cracks, a detail that more than makes up for the stubborn grain flow at the big end.
Fully Machined Forged Steel
Commonly misidentified as “billet” rods, fully machined forged steel rods are exactly what the name implies. Quite simply, they’re premium-grade forged rods that are treated to a high-tech shower and shave. The machining process eliminates undesirable surface imperfections and allows improvement of the shape for increased strength and/or reduced mass.
Before the advent of readily available CNC-machining equipment during the last 15 years, the material removal had to be performed on manual machines at great expense. Combined with the cost of the needed forging dies, the primary exclusive benefit of forged rods (dedicated big end grain flow) was not deemed to be worth the added expense, so most high-end manufacturers stuck with true billet rods. But with the manufacturing cost reduction made possible by automated CNC workstations, the economics shifted and it has become possible to couple the advantages of a forging with a pristine machined billet-like surface in the same rod. It truly is the best of both worlds, and for this reason, fully machined forged steel rods are the ultimate choice for strength where weight savings of the reciprocating assembly is not a primary goal. They’re a great choice for any high-performance application short of Top Fuel.
Aluminum rods are manufactured by the forging process, or they can be cut from a sheet of aluminum plate, billet-style. Aluminum rods are generally 25- percent lighter than steel rods, and for this reason they’re very popular with racers looking to shed mass from the reciprocating assembly. Lighter reciprocating parts demand less energy to set into motion, allowing more of the force of combustion to be applied to the wheels. Lower reciprocating mass also allows the engine to gain crank speed faster for quicker rpm rise after each upshift, to keep the engine near the peak of the power curve. That’s the good news.
The downside is that aluminum has a much shorter fatigue life than steel, perhaps one-tenth as long in a racing environment. This means you’ll have to measure for stretch and replace suspect rods at regular intervals to stay ahead of possible catastrophic failure. How long will they go? That depends on how hard they’re loaded and if they’re abused. We’ve all heard stories about hot rodders getting 100,000 street miles out of a set of aluminum rods. Could be. But the fact remains that aluminum has a tendency to work-harden with use. Going back to the analogy of the coat hanger, if you keep twisting it, it’ll break. That’s work hardening, and an aluminum coat hanger can’t handle the same strain for nearly as long as a hypothetical steel coat hanger.
Another hassle is the fact that aluminum rods must be made physically larger because the ultimate tensile strength is about half that of a good steel rod. The added bulk often causes clearance problems inside the crankcase, especially when they’re swinging from a stroker crank. Some aluminum rod users abuse them without even knowing it. A cold motor must be warmed thoroughly because the expansion rate of aluminum is twice that of steel. The difference in expansion between the steel crankpin and aluminum big end can restrict the oil film clearance until the temperature of all parts stabilizes. Wing the throttle on an ice-cold motor, and you might be looking at spun rod bearings, or worse.
Aluminum rods can handle plenty of horsepower. You’ll want to check with the manufacturer for specifics, but it is safe to say that 2 horsepower per cubic inch is just the beginning. We’ll err on the side of caution and say that aluminum rods are best suited to race-only engines where regular inspection can ward off potential trouble.
Got a huge wad of cash burning a hole in your wallet? Then you’ll want to know that titanium rods offer the highest strength-to-mass ratio of them all. A well-designed titanium rod is about 20 percent lighter than a comparable steel rod. Titanium is the most abundant element in the earth’s crust, but it must be alloyed with other metals before it has the properties needed for the manufacture of connecting rods. The most common alloy is called “Titanium 6-4” because it has 6 percent aluminum and 4 percent vanadium to improve machineability.
Like steel and aluminum rods, titanium rods can be forged or cut from a billet. Given a choice, titanium rods are most durable when manufactured by the forging process. This is because the grain size of even the best aerospace grade titanium is less than steel. In a Richter-esque grain-sizing scale where a 6 rating is twice as tight as a 5 rating, titanium rates between 5 and 6 while high-carbon steel is far more cohesive, rating as high as a 9. To offset the possible negative impact on strength, a fully machined forged titanium rod is the best type thanks to the improved grain structure around the big end versus a cut-out true billet titanium rod.
Though raw titanium costs five times as much as raw carbon steel, the average retail cost of a set of titanium rods is “only” about twice that of steel. The increased consumer cost reflects the fact that titanium becomes “gummy” when machined and requires specialized tooling and slower feed rates. Titanium expands at about the same rate as steel and is resistant to work hardening, so you could run ’em in your street car with no problems as long as your wife never sees the credit card bill. So where do titanium rods really shine? In any all-out racing effort where an approximate 15-percent reduction in ultimate tensile strength is an acceptable trade-off for an approximate 20-percent reduction in connecting rod weight. As for ultimate power capacity, know that they’re used in everything from 9,000-rpm NASCAR motors to a handful of 6,000hp Top Fuel motors (though most teams use aluminum). With the right communication between you and the manufacturer, they’ll handle anything you can throw at ’em. Just be sure not to scratch them! Titanium is very “notch sensitive.” Small surface imperfections caused by rough handling must be polished immediately, or they can grow quickly.