A timing belt, or cam belt (informal usage) is a part of an internal combustion engine that controls the timing of the engine's valves. Some engines, like the flat-4 Volkswagen air cooled engine, and the straight-6 Toyota F engine use timing gears. Timing belts replace the older style timing chains that were in common usage until the 1970's and 1980's (although in the last decade there has been some reemergence of chain use). The term "timing belt" is sometimes used for the more general case of any flat belt with integral teeth, although such usage is a misnomer since there is no timing or synchronization involved.
In the internal combustion engine application, the timing belt connects the crankshaft to the camshaft(s), which in turn controls the opening and closing of the engine's valves. A four-stroke engine requires that the valves open and close once every other revolution of the crankshaft. The timing belt does this. It has teeth to turn the camshaft(s) synchronised with the crankshaft, and is specifically designed for a particular engine. In some engine designs, the timing belt may also be used to drive other engine components such as the water pump and oil pump.
Gear or chain systems can also be used to connect the crankshaft to the camshaft at the correct timing. However gears and shafts constrain the relative location of the crankshaft and camshafts. Even where the crankshaft and camshaft(s) are very close together, as in pushrod engines, most engine designers use a short chain drive rather than a direct gear drive. This is because gear drives suffer from frequent torque reversal as the cam profiles "kick back" against the drive from the crank, leading to excessive noise and wear. Fibre gears, with more resilience, are preferred to steel gears where direct drive has to be used. A belt or chain allows much more flexibility in the relative locations of the crankshaft and camshafts.
While chains and gears may be more durable, rubber composite belts are quieter in their operation (in most modern engines the noise difference is negligible), are less expensive and are mechanically more efficient, by dint of being considerably lighter, when compared with a gear or chain system. Also, timing belts do not require lubrication, which is essential with a timing chain or gears. A timing belt is a specific application of a synchronous belt used to transmit rotational power synchronously.
Timing belts are typically covered by metal timing belt covers which require removal to carry out visual inspection. Engine manufacturers recommend replacement at specific intervals. The manufacturer may also recommend the replacement of other parts, such as the water pump, when the timing belt is replaced because the additional cost to replace the water pump is negligible compared to the cost of accessing the timing belt. In an interference engine, or one whose valves extend into the path of the piston, failure of the timing belt (or timing chain) invariably results in costly and, in some cases, irreparable engine damage, as some valves will be held open when they should not be and thus will be struck by the pistons.
Indicators that the timing chain may need to be replaced include a rattling noise from the front of the engine.
When an automotive timing belt is replaced, care must be taken to ensure that the valve and piston movements are correctly synchronized. Failure to synchronize correctly in an can lead to problems with valve timing, and this in turn, in extremis, can cause collision between valves and pistons in Interference Engines. This is not a problem unique to timing belts since the same issue exists with all other cam/crank timing methods such as gears or chains.
The usual failure modes of timing belts are either stripped teeth (which leaves a smooth section of belt where the drive cog will slip) or delamination and unraveling of the fiber cores. Outright snapping of the belt, because of the nature of the high tensile fibers, is very uncommon. Correct belt tension is critical - too loose and the belt will whip, too tight and it will whine and put excess strain on the bearings of the cogs. In either case belt life will be drastically shortened.
Rubber degrades with higher temperatures, and with contact with motor oil. Thus the life expectancy of a timing belt is lowered in hot or leaky engines. Newer or more expensive belts are made of temperature resistant materials such as "highly-saturated nitrile" (HSN). The life of the reinforcing cords is also greatly affected by water and antifreeze. This means that special precautions must be taken for off road applications to allow water to drain away or be sealed from contact with the belt.
Older belts have trapezoid shaped teeth leading to high rates of tooth wear. Newer manufacturing techniques allow for curved teeth that are quieter and last longer.
Aftermarket timing belts may be used to alter engine performance. OEM timing belts "will stretch at high rpm, retarding the cam and therefore the ignition." Stronger, aftermarket belts, will not stretch and the timing is preserved. In terms of engine design, "shortening the width of the timing belt reduce[s] weight and friction".
The first known timing belt was used in 1945. The German Glas 1004 was the first mass produced vehicle to use a timing belt in 1962. The first American vehicle to use a timing belt was the 1966 Pontiac Tempest. In 1966, Vauxhall started production of the Slant Four overhead cam four-cylinder design which used a timing belt, a configuration that is now used in the vast majority of cars built today.