Terry sent 7,000 visiting fans into raptures when he got his head to Stewart Downing's curling free-kick six minutes from time, making up for a joint blunder with Scott Carson that let the hosts back into a contest they had been dominated in.
Derided as a meaningless fixture, the friendly will instead go down as an important staging post in Fabio Capello's tenure, with Terry's central defensive partner Matthew Upson putting England on their way to a richly-deserved triumph with a close range finish midway through the opening period.
Four goals in Zagreb excepted, there is no doubt England were more organised and effective that at any previous stage of Capello's time in charge.
The Italian may be being paid handsomely but if he can find a cure for mistakes which are occurring far too often, the dividend looks like being rich.
When the Three Lions analyse 2008, there will be a massive gap in the middle when they should have been at the European Championships.
That absence was not Capello's fault of course. Yet if the by-product of two years' abject failure under Steve McClaren is a coach with vision, willpower and knowledge, maybe the pain was worthwhile.
Capello has always said his is an evolving process. And this England was markedly different to the one he turned out against Switzerland last February, both in performance and personnel.
Only three of the players that started against a German side lacking Michael Ballack, Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings featured against the Swiss, when England were hesitant, fearful and fortunate to win.
However, it appeared they had spent the intervening nine months training together every day such was the cohesion they showed and adherence to a gameplan Capello has vowed there was no need to change despite suffering the loss of so many major players.
Germany's only first-half threat came through the excellent set piece delivery of Bastian Schweinsteiger, with Heiko Westermann sending a powerful header just over.
It never could be another 1966, 1990, 1996 or 2001 but the noise of German fans whistling their own team off the field at the interval in its own way provided a memory to cherish.
The major disappointment was England only had one goal to shout about by the break.
Aside from a good effort from debutant Gabriel Agbonlahor, Shaun Wright-Phillips came close on a couple of occasions and Downing forced an excellent save out of Rene Adler.
After the Jens Lehmann era, it seemed somehow fitting Germany should concede to a kamikaze goalkeeping blunder.
Adler came to punch Downing's corner with purpose after an Upson effort had been deflected wide. He missed it completely.
Agbonlahor probably should have bundled home. Instead, the ball bounced down off the striker and Upson launched himself at it, prodding his first England goal into an empty net.
In four successive appearances, Upson looks accomplished and more than just a mere stand-in. The same is true of Downing. And after nutmegging Schweinsteiger he drilled a low shot narrowly wide.
Then Wright-Phillips nearly scored in memorable fashion after a mazy run before substitute Darren Bent beat the German offside trap, skipped round replacement keeper Tim Wiese and looked to tap into an empty net.
Had he done so, the game would have been over. Instead, with glory beckoning he half tripped over his own feet, half lost his balance. The result was a glaring miss. The consequences were huge as England's age old capacity to shoot themselves in the foot reared its ugly head again.
As he could see the whole picture, in particular Patrick Helmes bearing down at some speed, Scott Carson, on his first England appearance since his nightmare against Croatia 12 months ago, should have taken charge of the situation. Sensing hesitation, Terry should simply have whacked it onto the running track behind the visitors' goal.
Between them they did neither, allowing Helmes to stick out a leg as Terry tried to shepherd the ball to Carson, nudge it through the helpless keeper's legs and gleefully skip past. Even Helmes' granny would not have missed what remained.
That England recovered their composure so quickly is another glowing testament to Capello's managerial abilities.
When Wright-Phillips saw his thunderbolt shot crash to safety off a post 11 minutes from time, it seemed the win England deserved would elude them. Terry had other ideas.