In the earlier series of kernels, the vendor patchsets were much larger - and contained everything from drivers and filesystems to security fixes. I would argue that there was less QA before kernel release in the 2.0, 2.2 and 2.4 series (where the QA was, it boots Linus'/Alan's/Marcello's computer). Ok, so now there is a much bigger difference between each point version than it was then, but still - the vendors cooperate in the same kernel tree to a much larger extent, and there actually _is_ QA now. Anyone remember versions 2.2.0, and 2.2.1 (what were they, one or two days apart)? Care to have a chat about kernel versions 2.4.0 to 2.4.13?
What we have now is tremendously better tested than the old and ancient series.