Sitting in an innocuous shed on the outskirts of Ford's Dagenham estate lies the Ford Heritage Centre.

To look at, the building is perhaps as much a heritage piece as the cars that sit within. We pull up outside the new Ford Mustang GT, and with a parking area that seems to be at capacity with five cars, we decide to take the liberty of parking it on the pavement.

Our casual approach to parking reflects the easy-going nature of those who inhabit the Ford Heritage Centre. This is less motor museum and more garden workshop, as we push through the folding metal doors that look old enough to have been installed by Edsel Ford himself.

There's a magic in that however, as you step carefully along the lines of some of Ford's most famous cars. The smell of oil is rich, as this is a practical building where things actually happen, and the Ford Escort on the ramps is a testament to that.

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It's the home of the Ford Heritage Collection, cars that are cared for, celebrated, and in many ways loved. They are preserved in a roadworthy condition, maintained to be used.

But today isn't about the RS Cosworth, Supervan or that fairly ordinary Ka nestled at the back, it's about the Ford GT.

In 2016, the Ford GT returns to Le Mans. That news was revealed a year ago, following the unveiling of the new Ford GT road car at the North American Auto Show in early 2015. Fast forward a year and we're eyeing-up a new Ford GT race car, competing in the Le Mans GTE Pro.

There are four Ford GTs competing in the class, alongside the likes of the Aston Martin Vantage, Porsche 911 RSR, Corvette C7.R, and of course Ferrari. The story goes that the original Ford GT was built an "up yours" to Ferrari, a rivalry that's will be as alive in the 2016 Le Mans race as it was in the 1960s.

Enzo Ferrari had been looking to sell and Ford was looking to buy. The story goes that Ferrari snubbed Ford's advances and didn't sign on the line. Ford's reaction was to challenge Ferrari and the GT was born. After a couple of mediocre race performances, Ford's took a 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in 1966 with the Ford GT40 MkII. It's fitting then that the Ford GT's new push into performance comes on the 50th anniversary of that famous victory.

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This new Ford GT race car presents the wonderfully dramatic bodywork of the new Ford GT, but carrying with it hallmarks from its predecessors, like those gaping holes in the bonnet.

It switches out the 7-litre engine of that old Le Mans winner for a 3.5-litre V6 EcoBoost engine. With EcoBoost sitting at the heart of not only Ford's regular road cars, but now its racing thoroughbred too, it's a strong push for both Ford and the EcoBoost brand.

Working from the black 1966 car, painted here as the race-winning car of 66 you can see this heritage evolution of the GT, sticking to that wide, flattened body and holey bonnet, channeling air over the shoulders before it gobbles it all up again to the rear. Click here to see more glorious photos.

Those air inlets sit behind the doors across all these GT models, but what's perhaps surprising is that those quirky bridges, or flying buttresses, that span from roof to rear wheel on the new GT, are also on the GT40 MkIII from some 50 years ago, albeit much smaller, sucking more air into the engine bay.

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The Ford GT40 MkIII was an oddball. Sporting more flamboyant curves and more exotic design, this was a race car tamed. Designed as a road version of the GT, it was detuned and given a modicum of creature comfort, like a luggage box sitting on top of the engine compartment. If you want to arrive with super-heated clothes, it's the car for you.

If you're a fan of GTs, you'll likely have seen DWC 8G before, here in red. It's a rare car, but ultimately, it was rare because (the story goes) at the time, no one really wanted this softer GT. With only seven made, DWC 8G has flaunted its curves in many different liveries as the Heritage Collection restores and remodels this rare beast. If you want to see more, head into the gallery for more photos.

Much of the curvy flamboyance is lost in the 2005 Ford GT, which in many ways is closer to the rough muscley looks of the original racing GT40, with that flat back. Common across all three of these older models we have here are those doors that cut deep into the roof. It's one of the GT's most distinctive features of the past.

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On the early cars, the interior is understandably barebones. By 2005 things were very different and in this road-going GT, there are plenty of comforts, with that metal finish to the interior. But there's a brutality to the exterior design, and the GT remains a flat slab of car, here powered with supercharged 5.4-litre V8.

For those in the UK, it's perhaps best remembered for the praise that turned to criticism from Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, who owned one and ultimately returned it. For a closer look at the 2005 Ford GT, check out our photo gallery.

But from the 2005 model and you can draw a line directly into the design of the next-gen Ford GT. Things are bolder and wider, but with the birth of the 2016 model, there's a wonderful drama that you wouldn't normally associate with Ford. In many ways, the new Ford GT exhibits the flamboyance you might associate with Ferrari, and that's beautifully ironic. 

This rebirth of the Ford GT is all part of a reinvigoration of Ford Performance. The Ford GT race car will set out its stall at Le Mans, leading the charge for the new and refreshed road GT models, for that new Ford Mustang GT we pulled up in, the excellent Ford Focus RS and those beloved Focus and Fiesta STs, tearing up the streets wherever you look.

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Judging by the popularity of the ST, the praise heaped on the Focus RS, and our own experience of the Mustang GT, Ford Performance is as exciting now as it has been in the past. In many ways, success at Le Mans in 2016 will be the cake onto which this icing is spread, with an EcoBoost cherry on top.

Much of Blue Oval history is played out in the Ford Heritage Centre, a real lifeline to Ford's past. That might be a past that starts with the Model T (which they have), but to so many cars in-between. Ford's new performance push puts a fresh range of models within the grasp of many people, something that was true of many of the classics that now live in the Heritage Centre.

The fact that this priceless collection is not just housed, but cared for and loved, in a rather ramshackle hut, is rather charming and in some way fitting.