I didn't know the idiom, "the rubber meets (hits) the road." So I was drawn to the passage, “When it comes to Ebola, the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation” appearing in NPR’s (October 6) article under the title, “Firestone did what governments have not: Stopped Ebola in its tracks,” which reads:

“The classic slogan for Firestone tire was “where the rubber meets the road.” When it comes to Ebola, the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia. Harbel is a company town not far from the capital of Monrovia. Firestone workers and their families make up a community of 80,000 people across the plantation. Firestone detected its first Ebola case on March 30, when an employee’s wife arrived from northern Liberia and was diagnosed with the disease. Since then Firestone has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay.”

Obviously, the line “the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation” is associated with Firestone’s familiar product slogan, and is used here, I guess, to mean that the Firestone rubber plantation kept the prevalence of Ebola virus at bay.

I wonder if I can use the phrase, “the rubber meets the road at (place)” in the sense of keeping a problem under the firm control” as a generic mention, without any specific reference to the Firestone slogan.

Is “When it comes to Ebola, the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation” a nonce term?

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    No, "when/where the rubber meets the road" is used to talk about when one stops talking about theories and what-ifs and actually does the thing they've been talking about. The point at which the rubber meets the road is the point where those theories and assumptions are found to either hold up or fail - it's the "real deal" so to speak.
    – Jim
    Oct 13 '14 at 2:53
  • @Jim.As the second thought, I checked Google Search and found definitions from many sources. Among them, Wikitionary defines “Rubber meets the road” as: a metaphor derived from the point of contact between automobile tires and pavement. (idiomatic, with "where" etc.) A place or circumstance at which the implementation of a plan or intent is to be achieved.I guessed wrong.
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Oct 13 '14 at 3:17
  • Hi Yoichi - I would totally dismiss anything you read in wiki :) Jim is right. As I mentioned below, an almost identical-meaning idiom in English is dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/at-the-coalface
    – Fattie
    Oct 13 '14 at 8:58
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    I saw that article as well and remember when reading it thinking that particular sentence was a bit contrived. Oct 13 '14 at 16:37
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    As to whether what you read was "a nonce term", I would say that the answer is "yes". The writer was "torturing" the metaphor for its "cuteness" value (if we can talk about cuteness and Ebola in the same breath). It would be very difficult for even a US-born English speaker to read that and derive the "normal" meaning of "where the rubber meets the road" from it.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 14 '14 at 1:06

It really has nothing to do with keeping problems at bay or rubber in specific. There is an idiomatic phrase "where the rubber meets the road". I've found several definitions for this idiom, but this one is my favorite:

Where the rubber meets the road is the most important point for something, the moment of truth. An athlete can train all day, but the race is where the rubber meets the road and they'll know how good they really are.

All the definitions have a common thread about getting things done, being a turning point, a crucible. The metaphor derives literally from the point where the tires on an automobile touch the road - this is the point where the friction is generated to move the car. That's the point where everything matters.

So what (I think) the author is trying to say is that when the Firestone plantation faced this big challenge - at that moment where the rubber met the road - they rose to the occasion and prevented a further Ebola outbreak.

If things had gone worse, one could just as easily have said: "When the rubber met the road, they failed miserably and everyone got sick." So it actually has nothing to do with how successful they were, but rather with the crisis point they faced.

Having said all that, the usage in the example you cited feels very awkward to me, mostly because the phrase is almost never used in past tense. (see NGram usage) Someone was clearly trying to make a play on words with the Firestone slogan, and I think they reached a little too far.

  • Presumably in the case of athletes, we're talking about the rubber soles of their race shoes rather than car tyres. Oct 13 '14 at 11:55
  • Good answer for the most part, but I think the past tense is used here deliberately to provide an interesting contrast to the normal slogan. That you can't find it used much that way through NGrams is irrelevant, as are NGrams themselves for style issues. If raw usage numbers were any indicator of stylistic perfection, unvarnished clichés and hack phrases would be stylistic paragons.
    – Robusto
    Oct 13 '14 at 12:25
  • @DominicCronin - The phrase originated with regards to cars according to various definitions, but yes - one can extrapolate it to shoes as well.
    – Lynn
    Oct 13 '14 at 15:45
  • @Robusto - Yes, I agree, but the contrast just didn't work for me. Just a personal thing.
    – Lynn
    Oct 13 '14 at 15:46

The use of the slogan, "where the rubber met the road", in the story you cite was particularly clever, and the phrase may or may not have originated with the advertising slogan. However, among people in the US of a certain age, the phrase is common enough to be well understood. It does not apply only to autos, or to tires, but can be used more generally to refer to that point where things are made to happen, sometimes in a figurative sense, and sometimes, by extension to the agent which or who made things happen. So that one might say, for example, "When the rubber met the road, one could count on Yoichi".

A phrase of similar intent is "when push comes to shove".

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    "when push comes to shove" is a fantastic point. Good one!
    – Fattie
    Oct 13 '14 at 8:59
  • Also similar to 'when it comes to the crunch.'
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Oct 13 '14 at 21:42
  • Yes, when push comes to shove, when the going gets tough
    – Lambie
    Feb 23 '20 at 17:52

no, that's totally 100% incorrect.

(1) "where the rubber meets the road" simply means "the moment of truth" or "the place of actual action".

You use the phrase to signify, "the real battlefront - not the paperwork in the back office" or "where the actual action is after all the talking and planning" ...

It's terribly "American" and action-oriented. You can imagine people having long-winded discussions, and then John Wayne appears and says "this is all bullshit - when the rubber meets the road, we'll need MORE BULLETS!"

I hope that gives a flavour of the expression.

(2) it's true that a tire company, used the phrase, in a "jingle" (you know what i mean right?) in I believe the 1960s.

This has nothing to do with anything, at all, and is very confusing.

(The journalist is simply pointing out the coincidence...which is a vague and stupid coincidence.)

(3) is used here, I guess, to mean that the Firestone rubber plantation kept the prevalence of Ebola virus at bay.

Totally wrong. The phrase means: that place is where the action is in the fight against Ebola.

(So, you can imagine people in laboratories, politicians in offices ... but that's all just talk!! As far as Ebola goes, where the rubber meets the road ... that's a village in Africa.

(4) I wonder if I can use the phrase in the sense of keeping a problem under firm control

Absolutely not.

That is totally wrong, and has no connection in any way to the phrase.

The phrase just means "where the 'real' action is", "the coal-face", "the battle-front". Not the back office! Not planning! Not the damned analytics department!! Where the actual action is!

For Samsung, the rubber meets the road in mobile phone shops, where real shoppers decide on samsung or apple. For NASA, the rubber meets the road when the big engines fire and the rocket takes to the air. And so on.

(5) "without any specific reference to the Firestone slogan".

Regarding the Firestone company (reminder: they once used the phrase, in a jingle). Never use the Firestone company, in any way, at all, in relation to using the phrase.

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    -1 - While some of your points are valid, you present them in such an aggressively opinionated manner that most people would be likely to discount your entire answer, especially as it also fails to include evidence that supports your assertions and prescriptions.
    – Erik Kowal
    Oct 13 '14 at 9:32
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    Awesome, that was my aim! :) nicely put.......
    – Fattie
    Oct 13 '14 at 10:03

In trucking, where the rubber hits the road is where the tire (means) hits the street (challenge). Opposed to theoretical, it's where and when efforts are applied to a task.

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