I was using boot.iso / netinst.iso . They do seem the same, but I have not compared them.
I did get to the bottom of it, sort of.
Parted did not like my old Fedora 8 swap partition!! Since all 3 machines I had trouble with were clones, the swap part was the issue in all 3. Once I realized that fdisk and the kernel had no issue, but that any parted based util I tried would fail to even load properly, I was able to delete partitions (I have good backups) until parted stopped choking.
Anyway, once restored, filling the partition with zeros and doing mkswap didn't fix the issue, but deleting the partition and creating a similar one elsewhere on the disk did fix it. The new swap partition messed up fedora 8 and it's resume in the process because the uuid changed.