LAKE GEORGE — Every day, as many as 4,000 cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles pass the driveway of Tom and Chrissey Dittus on state Route 9N, a half-mile southwest of the village of Lake George.
But this is no ordinary driveway. Parked there most days is an iconic, vintage station wagon that rates constant honks, thumbs-up — and second looks. Some of the more bold passersby even stop in the driveway for pictures.
And, depending on the day, not just one but two station wagons now occupy the driveway, looking like identical twins. The orange-and-blue New York license plates read GRIZWOLD on one car and WALLYWLD on the other.
The Dittuses’ Ford Country Squire Truckster station wagons are honk-worthy lookalikes for the iconic “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie car. Each comes complete with the distinctive, lumpy form of the movie’s deceased Aunt Edna riding on the roof among the suitcases and a dog leash hanging from the rear bumper.
The movie, starring Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, debuted in the summer of 1983. One of the year’s highest-grossing comedies, it earned raves from critics and spawned four sequels about the vacation misadventures of the Griswold family. These days, the movie has achieved cult status among movie buffs — and car buffs like Tom Dittus.
And because his house doesn’t have a garage, said Dittus, 68, who is retired from industrial sales and moved to the Route 9N location about four years ago, the iconic cars occupy the driveway year-round.
“It’s nice,” he said. “Everybody sees ‘em.”
One iconic car is explainable as a quirky hobby ... but two?
“I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a spare,’” Dittus said.
He bought the second car 18 months ago. It’s a 1989 model, two years newer than its twin.
But Dittus didn’t start out wanting a car like the one in the movie.
“I really just wanted a cheap car that could haul some stuff around,” Dittus said. “I bought it for $2,300.”
After he bought the first car, “I realized that’s the same kind of car that’s in the movie,” Dittus said. “So this just kind of happened. And it’s a great use for old luggage,” he added with a chuckle.
Over the years, the original car has acquired an eclectic collection of bumper stickers and autographs from fans. The newer twin remains nearly pristine, its wood-like panels almost perfectly intact. Both Aunt Ednas are crafted from burlap bags donated by Lake George’s Caffe Vero, where the Dittuses often stop for morning coffee with one of the cars parked out front.
But the cars aren’t cheap to maintain, Dittus said. A few months ago he dropped thousands of dollars to install a rebuilt engine in the 1987 car.
“Stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to see it go to the junkyard,” he said.
And driving the cars isn’t cheap either: Mileage averages 10 miles a gallon “the way I drive,” Dittus said. By that he means that he likes to take one of the cars and cruise Lake George’s Canada Street and the beachfront, a speaker concealed inside Aunt Edna blasting the movie’s theme song.
On a recent warm Friday afternoon, sidewalks filled with summer tourists, a woman in shorts in a crosswalk broke into laughter and pointed to the car as it paused for pedestrians on Canada Street. Passing the A&W restaurant, Dittus honked and the parking lot erupted in waves.
A restaurant deck full of happy-hour revelers roared with approval at the sight of the wagon.
When Dittus parked on Canada Street, a family group paused for a closer look.
“I knew it immediately,” said Jim Mussnug, 62, visiting Lake George from Clifton Park for a family reunion. “I saw the rope and the thing on top.”
“They all love the car,” said Dittus, who with his gray beard and long hair looks like ... well, yes. He plays Santa during the season at the Galleria at Crystal Run in Middletown, in Orange County, commuting in the iconic car.
“There’s an amazing amount of fun you can have for $2,300,” Dittus said, recalling a recent encounter on the Northway. The driver of an expensive sports car pulled alongside the station wagon “grinning and giving me thumbs up,” Dittus said. “I’m constantly surrounded by smiles.”
In his jaunts around the village of Lake George in the cars, Dittus said he frequently encounters another local icon of the road — the huge steer, towed by a pickup truck, that advertises the Painted Pony Championship Rodeo in Lake Luzerne.
“We wave to each other all the time,” Dittus said.
Dittus has considered ways to make money with the cars — a limo service seemed like a good idea — “but insurance is like impossible,” Dittus said. “So it’s an expensive hobby.”
He maintains a Facebook page for the cars that counts more than 3,000 followers.
Chrissey Dittus, 66, who works for the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Warren County office in Warrensburg, rationalizes that maintaining any car costs money.
“Every car has its problems,” she said, adding that she drove the 1989 wagon to work for two days recently while her 2013 car was in the shop.
“I’m a little nervous driving it in crowds,” she said. “It’s a big boat.”
The Dittuses, who emphatically respond “Yes!” when asked if they could be called old hippies, show not a trace of the tough times they’ve endured since they lost nearly everything in the financial crash of 2007-2008. At the time, their go-to car was a 1990 Ferrari Testarossa and they lived in a house overlooking Lake George. (That car also counted about 10 miles a gallon.)
“Now, I’ve got a million smiles,” Tom Dittus said. “When you have huge things happen, then everything else is small.”
As pedestrians on Canada Street paused to take photos of the iconic cars parked bumper to bumper in front of a lemonade stand, Chrissey Dittus waved off their misfortune with good humor.
“This,” she said, pointing to the 1989 WALLYWLD wagon, “gets as much attention as the Ferrari.”
In their new lives of “slow cars,” Tom Dittus said, they realize their good fortune in having their health and good friends and the opportunity to live in such a beautiful place. But his gas-guzzling, iconic movie cars are never far from his mind, or his heart.
Turning to his wife, Dittus said: “Shall I tell about the third one we almost got?”