Abstract Sorbic acid (SA) was used to improve the performance of styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR)/halloysite nanotubes (HNTs) nanocomposites by direct blending. The detailed mechanisms for the largely improved performance were studied by X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), porosity analysis and crosslink density determination. The strong interfacial bonding between HNTs and rubber matrix is resulted through SA intermediated linkages. SA bonds SBR and HNTs through grafting copolymerization/hydrogen bonding mechanism. Significantly improved dispersion of HNTs in virtue of the interactions between HNTs and SA was achieved. Formation of zinc disorbate (ZDS) was revealed during the vulcanization of the composites. However, in the present systems, the contribution of ZDS to the reinforcement was limited. Effects of SA content on the vulcanization behavior, morphology and mechanical properties of the nanocomposites were investigated. Promising mechanical properties of SA modified SBR/HNTs nanocomposites were obtained. The changes in vulcanization behavior, mechanical properties and morphology were correlated with the interactions between HNTs and SA and the largely improved dispersion of HNTs.