What Does the Phrase ‘Kick the Tires’ Mean?

by Gabrielle DeSantis

“Ah, they’re just tire kickers,” is a commonly used phrase in the car selling business. It typically refers to when a car shopper comes into a dealership to look at a car and ask a few questions, but doesn’t do any further research or ask for a test drive. But where does the saying come from and what does it actually mean?

“Kick the tires” could have a lot of meanings

US Vice President Al Gore (L) kicks the tires of a concept car at an event showcasing cars from the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) in Washington, DC as General Motors Vice Chairman Harry Pearce (R) looks on. | (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Luke FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images)

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While the aforementioned definition of a “tire kicker” technically holds true, the true meaning and origin of the phrase are a little hazy. An article published by the Chicago Tribune explains that the term “kick the tires” may have spawned from a multitude of meanings.

The article goes onto explain that some of the engineers from Goodyear chimed in on the question and responded with the following possibilities:

  • In the early days, when cars shared the road with horses, kicking the tires was an easy way to get manure off of the horse riders’ shoes. When motorists saw them doing it, they thought it was an easy way to test out a car’s tires.
  • The practice started with truck drivers that used to carry a tire billy, which is a tool akin to a billy club. They used to strike the tire with the club to see if it had enough air.
  • Kicking the tires was an easy way to vent your frustration when a tire would go flat while driving.
  • It’s derived from the Latin term E tira kikium, or “a kick for good luck.”

By the looks of it, any meaning that makes sense to you is probably correct in some way. Considering not even a Goodyear engineer could figure it out. But at any rate, it safe to say that it denotes that a prospective car buyer is “just looking.”

A salesman helps out a customer at a Ford dealership.
A salesman helps out a customer at a Ford dealership. | (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Kicking the tires could work for car repairs

While the term “kick the tires” is a widely used idiom and a phrase for car shopping, it can also be used in the literal sense. For example, if a car has a bad ball joint or bearings, then you can jack the car up and wiggle (or even kick) the tires to see if there is any unwanted movement from side to side.

If there is, then the car most likely needs some attention to its suspension components or bearings.

It’s not the best way to check tire pressure

That all being said, if you go to check out a car, don’t kick its tires in an effort to check its roadworthiness. According to Action Gator Tire, kicking a car’s tire will not give you an accurate reading of a tire’s inflation pressure or anything else you might be looking for. Instead, kicking any of the tires will most likely only tell you if your shoes are hard enough to kick an immovable object.

And if you kick it incorrectly, you could actually do yourself more harm than good. If anything, do as much research as you can for the car that your planning to buy and leave the tire-kicking for after you drive it home. Whether it be in the figurative or literal sense.

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