For the first time since World War II, the automobile-loving nation of Italy purchased more bicycles than cars last year -- a likely reflection of both the euro zone economic crisis, the Rome government’s austerity cuts, rising fuel prices and high unemployment.

According to Italian news website Today, 1.750 million bikes were sold in the country in 2011, slightly above the 1.748 million figure for autos.

Auto sales figures represented a 20 percent plunge from the prior year, and they are now at their lowest level since 1964.

This represents quite a shift for the land of legendary Alfa Romeos, Lamborghinis and Ferraris.

(Auto sales have also dropped in France, Germany and Spain.)

Sergio Marchionne, the chairman of Fiat, recently painted a very grim picture of the European auto industry.

“Anyone operating in the automotive sector in Europe today is experiencing varying degrees of unhappiness,” he said. “The European car market is a disaster.”

With joblessness in Italy approaching 11 percent, fewer people can buy automobiles (not to mention, the sleek sports cars) that are renowned across the globe.

The Daily Telegraph of Britain reported that the price of gas in Italy recently reached €2 ($2.58) per liter, the highest such level in Europe. The average car in Italy costs about €7,000 per year to operate (according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Italian worker earns about €18,500 annually).

However, this apparent new focus on bikes rather than cars would put the Italians behind, say, Germans who have long espoused the joy of pedaling and have made many of their cities, particularly Berlin, very accommodating for cyclists. Large Italian urban centers remain the preserves of automobiles and scooters; Italy boasts one the world’s highest rates of car ownership (about 60 cars for every 100 people).

Italy’s nearly nonagenarian President Giorgio Napolitano has urged his countrymen to “catch up” with other European nations to ride bikes more often and for the state to make roads from compatible for the two-wheelers.

According to reports, of Italy’s 60 million population, about 6.5 million regularly travel by bike. In Germany, however, an estimated 15 percent of the populace already regularly commutes by bikes.

Napolitano’s plea arrived just ahead of a major cycling and sustainable transportation conference, which will be held this weekend in the city of Reggio Emilia (one of Italy’s most bike-friendly towns).

The Telegraph also noted that about 200,000 bikes have been taken out of storage by Italians seeking to reduce the costs of commuting and general transportation.

“More and more people are deciding to bring their old models out of the garage or the cellar,” said Pietro Nigrelli, of industry association Confindustria.

“Bikes are easy to use, and they cost little. And on distances of five kilometers or less, they are often faster than other modes of transport.”

Road CC noted that Italy’s auto culture played a crucial role in the country's post-war prosperity, including the wide availability of affordable cars like the Fiat 500 for average families.

But now, given the magnitude of the economic crisis, in Europe, some observers believe that Italians may have to completely overhaul their views on transportation.

“People who have only ever driven cars are changing their thinking,” Antonio Della Venezia, president of the Italian Federation of Bike Lovers, told La Repubblica newspaper.

“I don’t think Italy will go back to the levels of cars sales that we saw before 2008.”